Political Animal

Mueller Was Silent on the Question of Whether Cohen Traveled to Prague

Donald Trump and his enablers have settled on two overarching lies in an attempt to claim that the investigation of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election is nothing but a “witch hunt.”

The first lie is to claim that the entire investigation was launched because of the Steele dossier. That is immediately followed by an attempt to discredit both the author and his report. The second is that every time the special prosecutor documents a plea agreement with a Trump associate over a minor crime in exchange for their cooperation, we immediately hear that they provide no evidence of “collusion.”

Paul Sperry uses both of those arguments in an article titled, “Cohen’s ‘Appointment in Prague’ Was Dossier Bunk, Mueller Files Indicate.” As a reminder, the Steele dossier made two rather explosive claims about Michael Cohen. It states that he took over as the manager of the conspiracy on the Trump campaign side after Manafort was fired. As such, he attended a meeting in Prague with his Russian counterparts.

Based on “officials familiar with the case” (which could refer to just about anyone), Sperry claims that Mueller’s most recent documents related to Michael Cohen debunk the idea that he traveled to Prague.

Officials familiar with the case said the proof is in the lack of evidence in the 25 pages of court papers Mueller has filed on Cohen over the past two weeks. The alleged Prague visit is not evident in the plea agreement, the criminal information statement or the sentencing memorandum, none of which contain redactions.

Sperry goes on to point out that the documents report on Cohen’s contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, but don’t mention Prague. He also refers to the fact that Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to congress about Trump Tower Moscow, but wasn’t charged with lying in his testimony that he never traveled to Prague.

All of that is based on the second argument I referred to above. In other words, Sperry is suggesting that what Mueller has released so far is all he has on Cohen. Anyone who has been paying attention to the special prosecutor in these plea agreements knows that this is not the case.

One of the things we learned from the sentencing memo is that Cohen has already spent 70 hours being questioned by investigators. That’s a lot of time for the few bits of information that have been made public so far. If Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis is to be believed, then his client has already divulged a lot more than what we’ve heard so far.

Perry’s point in all of this is to promote the other lie about the Steele dossier being a partisan hit piece that launched the entire investigation.

Steele hasn’t worked in Moscow since the 1990s and didn’t travel there to gather intelligence on Cohen or Trump firsthand. He relied on third-hand “friend of friend” sourcing.

The Prague rumor was sourced to an anonymous “friend” of an unnamed “Kremlin insider.” If that claim of Russian origin is true, the Prague rumor stands as a highly successful piece of Russian disinformation channeled through the Clinton campaign…

“Cohen may be a convicted liar, but he’s not an agent of the Kremlin — that much is now clear from the court pleadings,” said a U.S official with direct knowledge of the case.

He noted that Mueller’s failure to substantiate the Prague rumor deals a “devastating blow” to the credibility of the dossier, which was used by the FBI to justify spying on at least one Trump campaign aide. “That was pretty much the heart of the whole thing,” he said.

Let’s be fact-based for just a moment. No matter how many times it is repeated by the president and his enablers, the Steele dossier is not the “heart of the whole thing” when it comes to the Trump-Russia investigation. Also, the idea that the trip to Prague was “Russian disinformation channeled through the Clinton campaign” is nothing but someone’s fantasy about what happened, because there is zero evidence to support the claim.

At this moment, in addition to what the Steele dossier reports, we know two things about Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague:

  1. Cohen denied that it happened in his testimony to congress, and
  2. Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, with McClatchy’s DC bureau, reported in April that Mueller had evidence that Cohen traveled to Prague.

In other words, Mueller has been silent on the question so far.

Of course, we also know that Mueller has a lot more information than what he has made public so far. Until the special counsel publicly affirms or disproves anything in the Steele dossier, assumptions about the veracity of its contents are nothing more than speculation to obscure the facts.

Trump Suddenly Realizes His Survival Depends on the Establishment

NBC News is reporting that a tiny low-wattage light bulb has flickered on inside President Trump’s brain.

Despite President Donald Trump’s public declaration that he isn’t concerned about impeachment, he has told people close to him in recent days that he is alarmed by the prospect, according to multiple sources.

Trump’s fear about the possibility has escalated as the consequences of federal investigations involving his associates and Democratic control of the House sink in, the sources said, and his allies believe maintaining the support of establishment Republicans he bucked to win election is now critical to saving his presidency.

The next obvious step would be to devise some kind of strategy for keeping establishment Republicans happy. In particular, he’s going to need to satisfy members of his caucus in the Senate, because they will ultimately decide whether he survives the next year.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida rattled the White House with similarly cautious remarks Sunday when asked about Trump’s possible involvement in the violation of campaign finance laws: “If someone has violated the law, the application of the law should be applied to them like it would to any other citizen in this country, and obviously if you’re in a position of great authority like the presidency that would be the case.”

Rubio said his decision on how Congress should respond to federal investigators’ final findings on the payments “will not be a political decision, it’ll be the fact that we are a nation of laws and no one in this country no matter who you are is above it.”

Senator Rubio sounds pretty unforgiving about some of the least serious of the allegations against the president. If he’s saying the president should be held accountable for covering up his extramarital affairs, what will he say about suborning perjury, obstructing justice, money laundering, or coordination with WikiLeaks and Russian military intelligence?

Remember, also, that Rubio publicly claimed in March 2017 that his own campaign had been targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. There are also personal and professional reasons why Rubio is unlikely to stick with the president for very long. There are lingering bad feelings from the rough-and-tumble Republican primaries, and then there’s the fact that no candidate for statewide office in Florida can afford to get on the wrong side of a major political dispute. Elections there are too close to call, even in the best of scenarios.

More than that, though, establishment Republicans have to believe that the president is capable of doing the job with at least a minimal degree of competence, and that he won’t lead the party off a cliff. Trump’s performance of late has been especially alarming in that regard. Taking the blame for any government shutdown was political malpractice.

Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, distanced himself Wednesday from President Donald Trump’s remarks welcoming a government shutdown over funding for a border wall.

“I’ve been here during government shutdowns,” Cornyn said. “When the government reopens, the same problem is staring you in the face, because the government shut down in the first instance. So I don’t understand the strategy. Perhaps the president has a strategy. I heard him talk about getting the military to build some of those physical barriers. That just remains to be seen. But I can tell you that right now I don’t see the benefits of a shutdown strategy.”

Siding with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over his own intelligence agencies is not going over very well.

As the US Senate moved to vote on Thursday on a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the assassination of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a bipartisan group of senators vowed to impose concrete sanctions on the kingdom in legislation next year.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said on Wednesday that the group plans to advance legislation imposing financial penalties and prohibiting arms sales when the new Congress begins in January.

In some of their strongest comments to date, senators signalled they would like to see Saudi Arabia remove Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from power.

“To our friends in Saudi Arabia, you are never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change. And it’s up to you to figure out what that change needs to be,” Graham, a congressional ally of President Donald Trump, told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference.

“From my point of view, the current construct is not working. There is a relationship between countries and individuals. The individual, the crown prince, is so toxic, so tainted, so flawed that I can’t ever see myself doing business in the future with Saudi Arabia unless there is a change there,” Graham said.

It hasn’t inspired any confidence on the Hill that the president fired the supposed “only adult in the room,” chief of staff John Kelly, and now cannot find a replacement. And it has already been reported that “the president’s top lieutenants on Capitol Hill” are anxious that he has not assembled an adequate legal team or strategy to fight back against the incoming subpoena-armed House Democrats and the inevitable carpet bombing from Robert Mueller.

To kind of summarize here, the president is giving the Republican Party ownership of a government shutdown they do not want on an issue they do not support. His White House operation is in shambles and the one person people trusted to keep it on track has been fired – and there is no comparable replacement in sight. Presently, the Senate is voting to essentially rebuke the president for his position on Saudi Arabia, and that disconnect will grow more serious next year. And, even if congressional Republicans wanted to fight to the death for Trump’s presidency, they’re not getting any information or guidance on how to perform that task because the legal and political teams in the White House are understaffed, uninformed, and incompetent.

Yet, Trump now believes that he needs to hold on to the support of “establishment” Republicans to survive.

That would be a difficult thing to achieve in the best of circumstances considering that Trump came to power by trashing them. They’ve basically gotten what they wanted from him already – a big tax cut, two Supreme Court justices, and a bunch of relaxed or gutted regulation. They’ve just seen two score of their colleagues cut down in the midterm elections, largely as a result of backlash against the president. There is no appetite for going into the 2020 presidential campaign with Trump as the Republican establishment’s standard-bearer.

Only two things can keep them in Trump’s corner. One is fear of a primary challenge, and the other is a massive change of behavior by the president. But no one will mourn Trump when he’s gone. Nixon’s posterity will look rosy by comparison, even in conservative circles. The fear that Trump’s base will spend their post-Trump time purging the party of those who held him accountable is a laughable idea. Trump’s ability to inspire fear is waning and will soon be completely gone. That leaves Trump with only one option, and it’s one he’d have to take anyway to adjust to a new political paradigm in which he must cut deals with the Democrats. Trump needs to start governing from the middle and stop trashing establishmentarian institutions like the FBI, Department of Justice, and the judiciary.

But this won’t happen because he’s incapable of making this transformation. Even if he attempted it, it would be too late for him politically. He now needs his loyal base just to keep the floor from falling out beneath him, so alienating them would cause his polls to crater. But to survive an impeachment battle with the establishment, he does need to start appeasing the establishment.

He’s telling people close to him that he understands this, but he can’t even get an establishment figure to serve as his chief of staff. The truth is, he burned his bridges and, at this point, the establishment is just waiting for Mueller, so they can clean out this mess.

 

The Tie That Binds White Evangelical Christians and Muslim Dictators

In January, the first two Muslim women will be sworn in as members of congress. Democrat Ilhan Omar will represent Minnesota’s 5th congressional district and Democrat Rashida Tlaib will represent Michigan’s 13th congressional district. This has obviously upset some Islamophobic right wingers.

Conservative pastor commentator E.W. Jackson went on an anti-Islamic tirade on his radio show Wednesday, complaining that Muslims are taking over Congress…

“The floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic,” Jackson said. “We are a Judeo-Christian country. We are a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity and that’s that. And anybody that doesn’t like that, go live somewhere else. It’s very simple. Just go live somewhere else. Don’t try to change our country into some sort of Islamic republic or try to base our country on Sharia law.”…

“The fact that we’re electing these people to Congress and electing them to office is just beyond the pale,” he said…“The threat to humanity is not merely radical Islam,” he added. “The threat to humanity is Islam, period. That’s right, I said it and I mean it.”

Jackson said all of that while claiming to support freedom of religion and the First Amendment, demonstrating that he’s not just Islamophobic – he’s ignorant.

Representative-elect Omar’s response was short and sweet.

But Omar and Tlaib are also under attack from leaders in several Middle Eastern countries.

Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib (another newly elected Muslim congresswoman), and Abdul El-Sayed (who made a failed bid to become governor of Michigan) of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On Sunday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya published a feature insinuating that Omar and Tlaib were part of an alliance between the Democratic Party and Islamist groups to control Congress. The article accused the two of being “anti-Trump and his political team and options, especially his foreign policy starting from the sanctions on Iran to the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all movements of political Islam.”

The author of that piece, Ola Salem, goes on to speculate about why Muslim leaders in the Middle East would be so threatened by Muslim women being elected the serve in the U.S. congress.

The rise of politicians like El-Sayed, Omar, and Tlaib also undermines a core argument advanced by dictators in the Middle East: that their people are not ready for democracy. “People would not have access to power in their countries but they would if they leave; this destroys the argument by Sisi or bin Salman,” El-Sayed said, referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman…

American allies in the region also fear that the Democratic Party’s new Arab leaders will advocate for political change in their countries. Having spent millions of dollars for public relations campaigns in Western capitals, the Persian Gulf countries feel threatened by any policymakers with an independent interest in and knowledge of the region. They have thus framed these officials’ principled objections to regional violations of human rights and democratic norms as matters of personal bias.

Accusing Omar and Tlaib of “personal bias” and being members of the Muslim Brotherhood is another way that these critics sound very much like their anti-Islam counterparts in the U.S.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime has highlighted the extent to which the Trump administration is being compromised by their ties to that country. Put in the context of the fact that the Republican base is now primarily made up of white evangelical Christians who tend to be Islamophobic (as we see above with pastor Jackson), that would appear to create some strange bedfellows.

However, the treatment of Omar and Tlaib demonstrates that the tie that binds all fundamentalist versions of major religions, regardless of the prophets they follow or the texts they revere: they are all based in authoritarianism. Anyone that strikes out in independence and veers from the “established order” will be denounced by any means necessary. If that sounds a lot like the current occupant of the White House, you’re starting to get the picture.

Our Version of ‘Cheap Eats’: Best Bang for the Buck College Rankings

High school students and their families–who face looming deadlines for college applications and are worried about high tuition–now have a valuable resource in the Washington Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck” college ranking.

We compiled and analyzed federal data to develop an exclusive list of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices. The top colleges on our list are a mix of some of America’s most elite institutions and hidden gems that make up for a lack of national name recognition. These schools have low net prices and strong records of helping students of modest means graduate with high-quality degrees that earn them good salaries in the job market. Many are schools that U.S. News & World Report, which rewards schools for prestige, doesn’t even bother to rank.

“Just like the ‘Cheap Eats’ list helps people discover affordable restaurants with delicious food they might otherwise miss, the Best Bang rankings help budget-minded students and their families find high-quality colleges at prices they can afford,” said Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly.

The Best Bang rankings are divided by region:

Midwestern College

University of Illinois at Chicago combines low net price ($11,145 per year), strong income potential (students earn a median $52,384 annually 10 years after they start at the school) and location in America’s third-largest city to make it a great choice. Other standout Midwest schools include College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Indiana Wesleyan, and Union Institute & University in Ohio.

Northern Colleges

Students of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the top-ranked school in the Northern U.S., earn $80,091 annually ten years after they start — $1,639 more than students who attend Princeton, number three on the list. Other great options in the region include Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey and City University of New York Bernard M. Baruch College.

Southern Colleges

Berea College in Kentucky charges nothing for tuition—students are assigned campus jobs tailored to their majors. Other Southern schools high on this list: Texas A&M University–Texarkana and Tusculum University in Tennessee.

Southeast

Augusta University in Georgia ranks at the bottom of U.S. News’college list but is number two on Washington Monthly’sBest Bang colleges in the Southeast. That’s because the school’s focuson in-demand jobs in the health care help its racially and economically diverse students, nearly two-thirds of whom are women, earn far more money than the Monthly’sstatistical models predict, all for an affordable net price of $10,158 per year.Other strong choices in the Southeast: Salem College in North Carolina and University of South Florida-Sarasota-Manatee.

West

California State University’s many campuses (in Stanislaus, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Sacramento and elsewhere) offer unmatched value, with net prices as low as $2,745 per year for degrees that help students earn median annual salaries between $37,313 and $47,254. Other top-notch Bang for the Buck schools in the West: University of Washington-Tacoma and Bingham Young University-Provo.

 The Best Bang rankings are based on graduation rates for first-time, full-time students, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and the typical price that families earning less than $75,000 a year pay for college after grant aid. Additional data on loan repayment rates, earnings, and the percentage of first-generation students are also incorporated into the findings. The Washington Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck rankings can be found here. The magazine’s other rankings—including Best Colleges for Adult Learners and Best Colleges for Vocational Certificates—are available in Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings issue here.