Thursday, February 21, 2019

BTRTN: What, Exactly, is the "Heart" of the Special Counsel's Investigation?

There are mixed messages coming out about the Mueller investigation, and Steve has a theory about how to square them.

Rise and shine, and welcome to the big buzz of this morning: reports are flying that Robert Mueller will deliver his final report very soon… possibly within days.

Many of us have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Mueller’s report, but the notion that it could happen before the end of February actually has many Trump loathers a bit concerned. The primary alarm bell is the very real possibility that Mueller concludes his work without even interviewing Donald Trump, Jr., and without issuing indictments to Junior or to Jared. Donald Junior hosted the famous Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016, which is considered to be perhaps the clearest example of documented collusion: the full email trail leading up to the meeting states that Trump was eager to get the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that the Russians were offering.

The fact that there is no indictment of Donald Trump, Jr. – indeed, no public record that he has even been interviewed by the special prosecutor’s office – could therefore be interpreted as a sign that Mueller does not intend to conclude that Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia with the intent to influence the 2016 election. Mueller could certainly throw the book at Trump for obstruction of justice… but it will be a heckuva lot harder to make that stick in the court of public opinion if there is no charge or proof that a crime was committed.

All the more puzzling, because such an outcome doesn’t square with a discovery made by the sleuths at The New York Times just last week. They found a very revealing comment from Robert Mueller’s lead investigator in the non-redacted section of the transcript of a closed-door session with a Federal Judge. “This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here,” the transcript quotes Andrew Weissmann, one of the most prominent prosecutors in the special counsel’s office. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

What, exactly, did Weissmann mean by that?

Somehow this quote managed to elude the redacting police. Then again, since the special counsel’s team completes every “i” with a perfectly spherical dot, we may infer that someone in Mueller’s camp actually wanted the world to see that particular phrase.

Heady stuff indeed. The closed-door hearing in question was held to determine whether Paul Manafort had violated the terms of his plea agreement by lying to the special prosecutors under oath. Mueller’s team had to appear before the judge to prove that Manafort had indeed lied to them in order to have the plea agreement voided. During the hearing, the judge had posed a question to the special prosecutor, asking why the particular subject of Manafort’s purported lie was so darn important. That’s when one of Robert Mueller’s top lieutenants got so emotionally charged up in the courtroom that he passionately explained that this particular lie was at the “heart” of the entire investigation.

The Times’ reporting on the matter was rather breathy as well. The story began with this line: “Of the few hints to emerge from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, about evidence of possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, one of the most tantalizing surfaced almost in passing in a Washington courtroom last week.”

C’mon, NYT, do you really think Andrew Weissman would have gotten that worked up about “evidence of possible collusion?” Like after two years he has not yet encountered “evidence of possible collusion?”

Does The Times really think Mueller’s investigation has led to just “a few hints” of collusion? 

For heaven’s sake, The New York Times, your own investigative reporters have exposed more than “a few hints” on page one of your own paper. Get real.

From where we sit, there appears to be more “evidence of possible collusion” already sitting in plain sight than there are commercials for Trivago, golfers named Jason, Justin, Jordon, or Dustin, or even Democratic candidates for President. Geez, there’s probably a website called The Daily Collusion.

There was the platform change at the Republican Convention, Don Junior’s meeting at Trump Tower, the timed leak of the Podesta emails, Jared’s proposed secret back-channel to Russia, there was Flynn’s conversation about sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, there is Manafort handing Trump polling data to the Russians. There is the fact that virtually all the senior Trump campaign officials involved in these exact matters lied about them under oath. There was Trump’s claim that he had nothing to do with the White House statement explaining the Trump Tower meeting, and then his formal reversal and acknowledgment that he had dictated the memo. There is the fact that Gates, Flynn, and Manafort have already entered guilty pleas for lying to the FBI about their dealings with Russia. There is the videotape of candidate Trump colluding on national television, asking Russia to find and hand over the missing Clinton emails.

Heck, the other day I switched from Rachel Maddow to Rachael Ray because I was so tired of hearing new evidence of collusion.

Everyone – and The Times in particular -- seemed to be assuming that when Andrew Weissmann referred to “the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating” that he was referring to evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

I don’t think that’s why he got so animated with the Judge.

Here’s a different theory, which involves the trajectory of the Mueller investigation. We tend to think of Mueller’s probe as four discrete areas of investigation:

1. Establishing whether or not Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

2. Establishing whether or not there was a conspiracy among Trump campaign officials to work with Russia to meddle with the election.

3. Establishing whether the then-candidate for and now President of the United States was aware of and actively approved of any Trump campaign collusion with Russian officials to meddle with the election.

4. Establishing whether or not the President of the United States obstructed justice in order to hinder investigations into his own and his campaign’s involvement with Russia to meddle with the election.

It is, of course, already a matter of record that Mueller’s team issued 12 indictments of Russia nationals, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 election. Point 1 is settled: Mueller – like the rest of the United States intelligence community – is certain that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

Let's quickly jump to point 4. There was reporting back in August, 2018, that Mueller’s team had actually completed its work on charges of obstruction of justice (that's point 4), but had decided to not release those findings until it had addressed the issue of collusion. The theory at the time was that it would be hard to make an obstruction case hold up if Mueller could not prove that there had been an underlying crime. So Point 4 seems to be complete as well. 

Point 2? Well, that’s why we made the joke about The Daily Collusion, and piled up all of the evidence that has surfaced and now sits in plain sight. The list we compiled above reveals repeated instances of not simple contact, but of conversations in which a transaction is clearly implied. The change to the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign platform regarding the Ukraine appears to have been a “call and response” linked to the Podesta emails. Donald Trump Junior gleefully agreed to a meeting with Russian government officials who were offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And in the very meeting in the Grand Havana Room in New York City that was the subject of Andrew Weissmann’s quote about the “heart” of the investigation, Paul Manafort and his campaign deputy Rick Gates met with Russian Konstantine Kilimnik, who is widely believed to have close ties with Russian intelligence. The subject of that meeting is alleged to have been a discussion of an exchange in which Manafort would provide Kilimnik with the polling data Russians could use to try to sway the election, and, in return, Kilimnik outlined a “peace plan” on the Ukraine that benefited Russia which Trump administration would be expected to endorse.

Quid, meet pro quo.

Let’s follow our hunch and say that Mueller’s team already had a fair amount of evidence that members of the Trump campaign team had meetings with the clear intent of accepting Russia’s offer to help influence the outcome of the 2016 elections.

But somehow, it was Grand Havana meeting in August of 2016 that cut to the “heart” of the Mueller investigation.

Here’s my theory: for Weissmann and Mueller, the “heart” of the investigation is actually point #3: establishing whether or not Donald Trump was aware of, complicit in, or overtly approving actions of conspiracy and collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mueller knows that Donald Trump Junior could have taken the Trump Tower meeting with Russia government officials on his own initiative, and could deny that he ever told his father about it. Or that Paul Manafort was trying to peddle campaign polling data to reduce his own massive personal debt. Or that Michael Flynn is, and always has been, a corrupt rogue operator cutting his own deals on the side for personal enrichment. Weissmann and Mueller suspect that Trump was aware of each effort to contact the Russians, but they need proof. Proof that is hard to get, because unlike Watergate, there are no tapes. Proof that is hard to get, because Donald Trump never writes emails. Proof that is hard to get, because it is entirely possible that the only two people who ever talked to Trump about the campaign’s dealings with Russia were Don Junior, who will never talk, and Paul Manafort, who appears to be a scattered, reckless, feckless flip-flopper who cannot figure out whether his best bet is to go for a plea deal or lobby for a pardon.

The theory continues: let’s hypothesize that Mueller’s team has testimony from Rick Gates, who swears under oath that Manafort was informing Trump about the campaign’s contacts with Russia. On the other hand, we assume that the special counsel also has a trove of conflicting, changing, and disjointed statements from Paul Manafort in which he claims to have told Trump about Russia on one day, and – going for the pardon – reverses that statement and denies it the next.

Mueller’s team decides that they need to jettison Manafort, whose testimony is completely worthless to anyone. They need to crush any lingering shred of Manafort’s credibility, to be sure that he is never paraded as a witness in defense of Donald Trump.

So they submit a petition to a judge in New York City that alleges they have proof that Manafort lied to the special counsel after entering into a plea agreement.

Our speculation continues: they cite a number of inconsistencies between what Gates tells them about the Grand Havana meeting and what Manafort has told them. Let's bet that Gates cites chapter and verse about the background, substance, and outcome of the meeting: that Manafort talked about the polling data so Russia can help Trump in the election, and Kilimnik outlines the position that Trump will take regarding the Ukraine. They are outlining a quid pro quo. Gates is able to point to follow-up meetings on the same topic. Manafort provides the same vague reasons for the meeting that Kilimnik once floated – that they were talking about bills owed by former clients -- and claims there is no follow-up. Calendars show that Gates is telling the truth. Andrew Weissmann tells the judge that Manafort’s plea deal must be tossed out, because Manafort is lying about this meeting.

The judge is wary. As reported in The New York Times, the judge pressed the special counsel's office to explain why the particular lie in question was is so important.

It is then that Weissman, we suspect, explains the real goal of the special counsel’s request. They need to utterly discredit Manafort as a witness for any party at any time.

Because Paul Manafort, angling for a pardon, is now claiming that he never told Donald Trump about the campaign’s contacts with Russian. And that is the big lie. That is the lie Mueller and Weissmann care about.

To the judge, Weismann declares the line that was not redacted and was reported in The New York Times: “This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here.  This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

We wonder if Weissmann’s public, non-redacted quote is followed by a heavily redacted section that might read something like this: “We believe that we can prove that Donald Trump was aware of, and in many instances directed, the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.  We cannot let a desperate and pathological liar like Paul Manafort get on anybody’s witness stand to confuse people on this point. At this point, his credibility is so tarnished that the only purpose he could serve is to muddy the waters and create doubt. He cannot be allowed to testify. Not for Trump, not against Trump, not for the United States, not against the United States. Publicly nullifying his plea agreement for lying under oath will serve this purpose.”

Perhaps the “heart of the special counsel’s investigation” is establishing that Donald J. Trump is “Colluder 1.”

Why wasn’t Weissmann’s comment redacted? It’s possible somebody goofed. But we doubt it. The special prosecutor's office is too disciplined to let something out that they don’t want out. No, we suspect that Mueller wanted to make sure that everyone knows that conspiracy and collusion are still very much on the table. Particularly if he suspected that his soon-to-be-approved new boss has ideas of pressuring Mueller to bring his investigation to a rapid and premature conclusion. 

Perhaps the new Attorney General thinks that his best chance of saving Trump’s ass is to force the report into the public before Mr. Weissmann has actually gotten all the way to the “heart.”

Because that is what may be happening.

A new Attorney General is sworn in, and suddenly the Mueller report will be issued within “days.”

Sure, we’ve been saying for a year that we’d love to see that report as soon as is humanly possible.

We’ve urgently wanted to see it, not just for our own curiosity, but for sake of the Constitution, the balance of power, the rule of law, and the United States of America.

But now? Now we want to feel certain that Mr. Mueller and Mr. Weissman have all the time they need.

Don’t be rushed.

Do the job you’ve been asked to do, in exactly the way you think it should be done. Don’t let the new Attorney General force the issue.

Take your time.

Mr. Weissmann, go for it. Get to the heart of the matter. 

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