Political Animal

Manafort Signals That He Doesn’t Want a Hearing on His Lies

On November 26th, Robert Mueller announced that Paul Manafort has breached his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to investigators. Manafort’s lawyers responded by saying that he “has provided information to the government in an effort to live up to his cooperation obligations” and both parties requested an expedited sentencing hearing to make their case. That prompted some interesting speculation about what the special prosecutor might be up to.

Since then, the Mueller team released a memo outlining their case that Manafort has been lying to them. But as I documented, the parts that were most relevant to a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia were redacted.

On Tuesday, while the rest of us were marveling at the Pelosi-Schumer take-down of Trump in the Oval Office, the parties were back in court primarily discussing scheduling matters when Manafort’s lawyers surprised U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson with this:

Manafort’s lawyers told her it was increasingly possible the defense might not ask for a hearing to challenge the government’s allegations. They have previously said Manafort believes he has been truthful…

“If we reach a place where the effect is not something we have a problem with,” Westling said, “it’s possible within the very near term we may inform the court after talking to our client that we don’t feel the need for the hearing.”

Jackson expressed surprise on that point, saying, “It seems unlikely to me this is going to be irrelevant.”

She added: “I don’t want to get to sentencing and have them say, he wasn’t truthful, and have you tell me he was. I get the feeling they’re going to want me to know whether he was truthful or not truthful with them when I think about sentencing him,” and whether to credit him for any cooperation.

Here’s the deal. Manafort lied to the investigators, he knows he lied to the investigators, and he knows that Mueller knows he lied to the investigators. In other words, he’s been caught. If there is a hearing about his lies, the Mueller team will go into detail with proof that he lied and potentially expose his piece of the Trump-Russia conspiracy.

We also know that Manafort has been updating the Trump team on his interactions with Mueller. In that sense, he’s been Trump’s mole inside the investigation and there’s been some collusion going on. So is he getting instructions to take one for the team and squash the idea of a hearing on his lies? Very possible. Why else would he contemplate not even attempting to defend himself?

We Should Have Reevaluated Our Saudi Alliance Before Now

Back in 2006 and 2007, and again in 2011, I wrote about how I view American Exceptionalism. One of the things I focused on was the alliance America made with Saudi Arabia and how it made sense in the context of lessons learned from World War II, particularly around the centrality of oil supplies for any future confrontation with Stalin’s Soviet Union in the European theater. I didn’t see then, and I still do not see now that America was motivated by imperialism or greed or disrespect for Muslim culture and human rights when it decided to help develop the kingdom’s energy supplies. Having said that, things developed as they developed, and in retrospect our relationship with the House of Saud has been a deal with the devil.

We have always had justifiable reasons for wanting access to the oil fields there, and we still have good reasons for wanting a cooperative relationship with the Saudi government.  But we can’t deny that the relationship has corrupted us and that is has corrupted them.  It seems inevitable that we’d eventually reach a point where the American people and even Congress would question whether the relationship could continue.

It might seem inexplicable that President Trump is refusing to let Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assassination order against Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi interfere with U.S.-Saudi relations, but it’s really just a naked version of what’s been going on all along. It’s less that Trump is a true outlier than that he doesn’t know how to sugarcoat things.

I actually agree with Trump in the limited sense that we ought not decide whether to support the prince’s war in Yemen or whether to sell the kingdom billions of dollars in arms based on the Khashoggi case. Where we differ is that I don’t think we should have been doing those things in the first place. Yet, at the same time, I also know that we don’t have great choices and that the president is expressing a real concern when he says “I really hope that people aren’t going to suggest that we should not take hundreds of billions of dollars [in arm sales] that they’re going to siphon off to Russia and to China.”

Having Saudi Arabia in our corner has always been, from the very beginning, just as much about denying access to oil and regional bases to our adversaries as it has been about gaining those things for ourselves. We’ve lived with the downsides of this arrangement for decades now, including the 9/11 attacks and all the tragedy that resulted from that, and it seems bizarre that the murder of a single journalist would, by itself, cause a complete reevaluation of our Middle East foreign policy.

We should have embarked on that reevaluation long ago and for different reasons.

Needless to say, I can’t endorse Trump’s behavior here. Even if he were right on the merits, he’s incapable of making the case. And that he is once again ignoring the assessments of his own intelligence agencies to defend the actions of a brutal despot is one more piece of evidence that there’s something deeply wrong with our president that needs to be explained.

Trump’s Bagman is Going to Prison

Judge William H. Pauley III has sentenced Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, to three years in jail. Keep in mind that he pleaded guilty to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York’s (SDNY) charges of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations – in addition to the special prosecutor’s charge of lying to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow.

The judge said Mr. Cohen’s assistance to the special counsel’s office, though useful, had not “wiped the slate clean,” and a “significant term” of prison was justified.

In the end, the judge gave Mr. Cohen three years for the crimes he committed in New York and two months for lying to Congress, to be served at the same time. He was also asked to pay nearly $2 million in fines, forfeitures and restitution.

While Cohen took personal responsibility for his actions, he clearly pointed the finger at the president during his remarks in court.

“I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today,” he said, “and it was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man” – a reference to Mr. Trump – “that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.”

Mr. Cohen said the president had been correct to call him “weak” recently, “but for a much different reason than he was implying.”

“It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass,” Mr. Cohen said.

Personally, you can count me as someone who is skeptical about how well Michael Cohen’s “moral compass” functions, but there can be no doubt that he committed criminal acts in collusion with his client.

Since the sentencing memos were released detailing those crimes, both Trump and his enablers have been making the case that payments made as hush money to silence women with whom the president had affairs do not amount to campaign finance violations, because prosecutors have no proof that they were made to influence the election. For example, here is Rudy Giuliana four days ago:

In the case of Karen McDougal, payment was made to the National Enquirer, who then “bought” her story for $150,000 and kept it quiet. Proving Giuliani wrong, federal prosecutors dropped this little bombshell about the National Enquirer’s parent company AMI in their press release today about Cohen’s sentencing.

The Office also announced today that it has previously reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, in connection with AMI’s role in making the above-described $150,000 payment before the 2016 presidential election.  As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election.  AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.

That, my friends, makes it a campaign finance violation facilitated by Michael Cohen under the direction of his boss, which is yet more bad news for “individual-1.”

There was one other interesting thing to note about the sentencing hearing, which is how the representative from Mueller’s team characterized Cohen.

Jeannie Rhee, part of Mueller’s prosecution team, told the judge that Cohen “has endeavored to account for his criminal conduct in numerous ways,” providing “credible and reliable information about core Russia-related issues under investigation.” Rhee said she could not go into detail about the ongoing Russia investigation but said Cohen was “helpful” to the probe…

The special counsel’s office, for its part, seems to view Cohen as a valuable cooperator. Mueller’s prosecutors did not recommend any particular punishment in their case but said he should not serve any additional prison time beyond his sentence in the New York case.

That approach put the special prosecutor in the role of “good cop” to SDNY’s “bad cop.” The fact that Cohen might continue to be a “valuable cooperator” probably has something to do with that, which means that Trump’s bagman could have more to say about a conspiracy between the president and Russia.

Demographic Changes Pose an Issue for Republicans, Not Democrats

Discussions about the demographic changes we’re undergoing in this country usually focus on the predictions that, by mid-century, white people will no longer represent a majority in this country. There is also the fact that the gender gap continues to widen in the Trump era, especially among white suburban women. But Ron Brownstein points to another demographic shift that hasn’t gotten as much attention.

In [Public Religion Research Institute] surveys, [Chief Executive Officer Robert P. Jones] notes, evangelical Christians have declined from about 21% of the total population in 2008 to 15% this year. That erosion, Jones says, has been “asymmetrical,” with younger and better-educated members becoming the most likely to leave the faith. That’s left behind a group that is older and more uniformly conservative.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the shrinking group of older white evangelical Christians is Trump’s base of support.

Mike Podhorzer, AFL-CIO’s political director, suggests that if we want to have a better understanding of white, non-college educated voters, we need to stop lumping them into one, catch-all category. What really distinguishes a Trump-supporting white voter from one who doesn’t isn’t education or even gender, it’s whether or not that voter is evangelical.

But it’s not just Trump. Brownstein uses exit data from the 2018 midterm elections to demonstrate that, when it comes to the much-discussed “white working class,” it is actually white evangelical Christians who are the Republican base.

As you can see, white evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly Republican, regardless of their education level. On the other hand, college educated non-evangelicals voted Democratic, while gender was the the issue with non-college educated, non-evangelicals.

As is often the case in these kinds of discussions, Brownstein focuses on the questions this data poses for Democrats.

In practical terms, the party and its presidential nominee in 2020 inevitably will try to turn out its new base and to regain blue-collar voters of both genders from Trump: the decision facing the party is not either/or. But Democrats will face a genuine choice of emphasis.

…the choice on how the party positions on racially tinged issues, such as immigration and police reform, will also likely be influenced by this debate. If Democrats believe they can recapture meaningful numbers of blue-collar whites from Trump they may hesitate about alienating them with vanguard liberal positions on social issues…in the hope of energizing younger and non-white voters.

That is the old conundrum of whether or not Democrats should emphasize so-called “social issues” (sometimes referred to dismissively as “cultural issues”). The nomenclature is interesting given that the terms are used to describe issues that more directly affect women and people of color. Gloria Steinem captured the disconnect by suggesting that we refer to men’s issues as “politics” and women’s issues as “culture.”

Racism has always been and will continue to be a deep undercurrent in almost every political discussion. But keep in mind that white evangelical Christians are the only ones who want abortion to be illegal in most/all cases, continue to be against same-sex marriage, and, along with white Catholics, want Trump to build his wall on our southern border.

The more important question Brownstein’s data raises is what it means for Republicans. Over the years, they’ve done their best to completely alienate women and people of color. Those efforts have only increased exponentially with Trump’s election.

The combination of the Republican embrace of “alternative facts” and the president’s ignorant, delusional bullying has hurt the GOP’s support among non-evangelical white voters—especially women. That leaves their strongest base of support among white evangelicals, who are dwindling in numbers.

Republicans have been forecasting their awareness of this dilemma at some level with their attempts to gerrymander congressional districts, suppress the vote, and embrace other anti-democratic measures. This is also why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed recently that stacking the federal courts was his most consequential political accomplishment. He knows that a conservative judiciary will long outlast his party’s ability to be electorally successful.

I’m still baffled as to why these demographic changes are so often posed as an issue for Democrats, rather than Republicans. It could be that no one believes that the GOP is interested in altering their politics of resentment, which are mired in xenophobia. That is certainly the message they’ve been sending loud and clear for decades now. But buying into Republican intransigence as dispositive is how the rest of us continue to make white men the center of our political discussions by insisting that Democrats grapple with the question of how to win them over.