Saturday, December 8, 2018

Impeachment? Not so fast

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News Dec. 11-12, 2018

Immediately last Friday after Michael Cohen’s sentencing memo was filed, President Trump crowed he was cleared and the opposition media claimed there were grounds for impeachment because the President was in effect an unindicted co-conspirator of a crime, which was closer to reality. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s court filings regarding Paul Manafort were either redacted or sealed, revealing little.

Often cited are precedents set by both the impeachment of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.   Neither Nixon nor Clinton was found guilty or was removed from office by Congressional votes. A simple majority in the House can vote to impeach,  but  two-thirds of the Senate must  agree to find him guilty and remove him from office.

 Impeachment is not so much a matter of law  as it is a political action. Voters’ opinions can  give members of Congress political backbones: Clinton’s public  job approval ratings polled  during the impeachment/trial remained over 70% and 66% were against removing him from office over the issue of lying and coverup of sexual misconduct.   Nixon, after release of the tapes, dropped from winning the prior election to  a 31%  job approval with 43% opposing removal from office.  During Nixon’s threatened impeachment, Democrats , the opposition party, controlled both House and Senate with significant majorities. Republican Nixon  resigned before the House could vote  to impeach because tapes were made public that confirmed his guilt. Like Nixon, Clinton's  opposition party, Republicans,  controlled both the Senate and the House though the vote even in the GOP controlled Senate fell short of the two thirds needed and he was acquitted. In Donald Trump's case, the House will be in the hands of Democrats ; the Senate's majority party is Trump's.

The current  public mood  should give the GOP shudders. It is similar to Nixon’s. The key public voter question is whether the actions of the President as charged by Congress  justifies his removal from office , which is the end result of a Senate conviction.  Trump’s  current job approval is around 40% with 42% opposed to his removal from office per a June 2018 poll.  This is  before we know much of what  Special Counsel Robert Mueller has found.

 That Democrats gained a decisive majority in the House of Representatives in  November means they have the simple majority  of votes  needed to impeach Trump  without any GOP help  At this moment it is a debatable intra party question of whether impeachment is an effective political strategy, distracting from promoting their public policy  agenda.  GOP control of the Senate would block removal of the president  at this time in any case. 

So far, public knowledge of facts implicating Trump is thin. Recently filed  court documents do indicate  business financial gain could have been his motivation to commit crimes of conspiracy/collusion and obstruction of justice.  The closest to fingering Donald Trump himself came  last week in the Michael Cohen case filings in which Cohen claimed he was instructed by the President  to break campaign finance  laws.  That  the President intended  to pay for silence of women with whom he had affairs was to protect family peace, not campaign purposes as Cohen claims, could be a reasonable  defense.   Whether the public would think lying and coverup of sexual misdeeds  alone justifies  removing  him from office is  very questionable.    It makes sense to wait for Mueller’s report and findings of Democratic dominated House  committees.
Footnotes: On Friday, December 7, 2018  the Southern District of New York's sentencing memo regarding Michael Cohen repeated the charge that Cohen committed a crime by arranging a method to pay off two women who knew of Trump's immoral and unfaithful conduct  for the principal purpose  that they would remain silent during the campaign. Significantly, the SDNY filing said that Cohen committed the crime under the direction of the president.  This could be very damning for the president, though he cannot be indicted for doing it. Any punishment would have to be through the impeachment process. Trump claimed immediately he was "totally cleared". .  The SDNY filings regarding Cohen said that he had been helpful, but not fully. The Mueller fillings said Coehn had been helpful on  the Russian conncection and that Cohen's jail term could be served at the same time as the judge ruled in the SDNY case.
Both the Clinton impeachment case and the Michael Cohen/Trump charges involved lying and covering up sexual misconduct.  Some Republicans voted not to convict Clinton, and all Democrats stood by their man.  Later public opinion polls showed 57% the public did not want Clinton to lose his job over the issue and they considered the impeachment harmful to the country (Gallup via Wikipedia summary)
The Mueller filings regarding Manafort pointed to lies  to the Special Counsel about his coordination with the White  House in 2018 and lies about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, his associate, who had ties with Russian military intelligence, the DNC hackers.

Also see the prior blog posting 12/3/2018. The tangled web of Trump-Russian deceit.

If sexual misconduct, lying and coverup did not reach the "time does not fit the crime" in the Cllinton case , i.e. the offense was not the reason for the Senate to convict because it was not serious enough and the administration's ability to conduct business (high job approval rating), then the "high crimes" needed to be something worse.  Worse could be  treason, bribery and a serious high crime...definition is up to the House to say what it is. What would be "high" enough to warrant a Senate conviction?  Look for  proof beyond reasonable doubt of treason  (collusion, conspire) to work against US, bribery..a tit for tat like: Russia will help Trump win if he gets sanctions against Russians lifted; money lauundering, emoluments clause violations, tax evasion, and whatever else the House defines.   Another nagging problem is can a President be impeached for what he did before he took office?  The other problem: the DOJ has its own rules that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime, but nothing in the Constitution forbids this. If the offenses took place before the President was sworn in, he could be indicted after he left office and prosecuted, though. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

The tangled web of Russian-Trump deceit

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News, December 5, 2018

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we practice to deceive.” per Walter Scott

So what if Donald Trump lied about his Trump Tower Moscow  negotiations while he was running for the presidency. He had claimed many times  that he had “nothing to do with Russia. I never did”.  Last week after his personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty  to lying to Congress about Trump's financial interests in Russia,  Trump changed his tune to” it was no crime and there was no deal. “ There will be many who take Trump  at his word  and leave it at that.  So long as he was not lying under oath to law enforcement , he has a point. However, he has lied to voters during and after the 2016 campaign, and American foreign policy was shaped to be in sync with Russia in ways that would be harmful the US allies and the Atlantic alliance. He created a web of wilful liars under oath and in public  to support  the myth of his lack of conflict of  financial interests in Russia since Trump’s puzzling  “bromance”  with Russia and Putin  had raised many eye brows.

Donald Trump had often advocated weakening NATO throughout 2015-2016 and even in his presidency.  NATO expansion to former Soviet satellites was  a thorn in the side of Russian national interests.  Trump’s fuming about NATO members not contributing enough was his public rationale but the weakening of NATO served both Putin’s national security designs and Trump’s continuing strategy to butter up Putin. Trump also advocated a softer policy toward Russia's grab of the Crimea and loosening sanctions imposed to punish Russia as far back as 2015. Why such a departure from traditional US foreign policy? Did Trump have undisclosed financial ties with Russia? Trump had vigorously denied that.   Did the Russians have something more  on him than just an alleged  carnal Moscow night ? Did the Russians see a Trump’s presidency as an unwitting asset to their national interests, motivating their interference in the 2016 campaign?

We do not have to wait for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to present his final report to learn about the web of  deceit or to get an understanding of what could have motivated Trump's Russia romance. Mueller's court filing documents regarding  Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Mike Flynn, and others contain much information. Mueller's indictments documents  also exposed in detail  methods Russia used in their attempt to tilt the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

The timing of the negotiations to build and finance the Moscow Trump Tower, as disclosed in the Cohen related court documents, coincided with Donald Trump’s  pronouncements as he was campaigning for president with  words and policies that favored Russia. Trump did have business interests in Russia  well into his status as presumptive GOP nominee.  and the Cohen guilty plea court filings  exposed Trump  as lying  to the American people about it. Special Counsel Robert Mueller signed off on the documents charging Cohen  with  lying to Congress for falsely claiming the Trump Tower deal was dead in January 2016 when  emails showed Cohen and Trump were actually  in communication with one another and  Cohen was still pursuing the deal  with Kremlin official Dmitri Peskov until  June 14, 2016 when Trump was already his party's presumed nominee.

  Key to the Moscow tower deal was getting financing from a certain Russian bank. The bank , other banks, and oligarchs were sanctioned by the U.S Congress to punish Russia for grabbing  Crimea  and  the sanctions needed to be lifted if the project was to be funded.  The deal was called off on June 14,  2016.  In the transition period Trump’s National Security adviser Mike Flynn was in secret communication with Russian ambassador  about the sanctions.  Flynn pleaded guilty to charges he lied to the FBI about it  and he  flipped to become  a witness for Mueller's probe. Sentencing is this month .

 In March 2016, Paul Manafort joined the campaign as a “volunteer” and in June rose to campaign chair. Manafort’s prior gig as  political consultant was the former pro Russian leader of Ukraine who opposed closer ties to the West.  During Manfort's campaign activities, Trump's polcies favoring Russia became more focused and specific. Manafort was charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller .faced trial in August 2018, and was found guilty of  bank and tax fraud . In September  he  pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the US and attempts to tamper with witnesses.  He violated his plea deal to be Mueller's  witness  in the Russian investigation and is now facing sentencing. He already sits in the blog posted dated July 31, 2018: Did Manafort's participation in the Trump campaign shape Donald Trump's views on foreign policy?