Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Russiagate" Tuesday

The political scene in the United States at this moment is full of mutual accusations of being Russian stooges. The Democrats are accusing Trump and his team. (With considerable reason.) Trump and his supporters are accusing the Democrats of being Russian collaborators. (Essentially a continuation of his response to Hillary Clinton in one of the 2016 debates: "No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet.") Corporate Democrats are accusing progressives of being Russian dupes. Some progressive are accusing others of naively falling for warmongering propaganda. Others are trying to thread the needle more carefully.

There are people trying to look as realistically as possible at US-Russia relations with a broader view of the partisan and intra-partisan polemics of the day or the week. They are more likely to be on the Democratic side of the spectrum. But not exclusively.

Just as I was drafting this, I got a pop-up news alert that the Special Counsel has taken new "Russiagate"-related charges public, apparently not reported in the press until today. Josh Gerstein reports in New charges filed in Manafort-Gates case Politico 02/21/2018:
Last week, prosecutors told the court they'd received new evidence that Manafort took part in "a series of bank frauds and bank fraud conspiracies" in connection with a loan he sought in 2016. Mueller's team said Manafort obtained the loan using “doctored profit and loss statements” that overstated "by millions of dollars" the income of his consulting business.

The bank fraud allegations were disclosed in a bail-related court filing made public on Friday that did not contain any indication of what action, if any, Mueller's team planned to take over the alleged fraud.

Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty.
Among informed observers who have kept their heads and analytical abilities intact on the Trump-Russia issues, Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel is one of the most notable and evidently very careful. Today, she is writing about Jared Kushner's security clearance issues (Jared's Clearance and the Foreign Policy Version of Conspiracy to Defraud America 02/21/2018):
I’ve come to think of Kushner’s clearance process in similar terms to the way I’ve thought of the bail process Mueller has used with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates: While Gates ultimately did make bail, Manafort is still (!) almost four months after his arrest, struggling to show enough liquidity free of taint from his money laundering to alter his release conditions. The process of making bail (and having to serially beg to attend his kids’ soccer events) seems to have been one of the factors that brought Gates to the point of flipping, but along the way, he probably gave Mueller’s team far more leverage in plea negotiations, because they know how little Gates actually has to pay a defense attorney to oversee the flip (indeed, that may lie behind the confusion over Gates’ current legal representation).

Kushner’s liquidity problems are literally an order of magnitude greater than these men. But unlike them, he made the idiotic decision to work in the White House, and thereby to undergo the scrutiny of sworn statements laying out all the financial vulnerabilities and foreign entanglements that might make him susceptible to blackmail.

Which brings me back to my description of how Mueller is leveraging “conspiracy to defraud the United States” (what I will henceforward refer to as ConFraudUS*) charges to prosecute political influence peddling for which our regulatory system has completely collapsed. With the Internet Research Agency indictment, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because the trolls bypassed a campaign finance system that no longer works. With Manafort and Gates, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because they bypassed Foreign Agents Registration Act requirements that have never been enforced.
Marcy actually reads documents and vets them against other publicly available information and see them in a complex context. She not just claiming anyone who makes a non-hostile statement about Russia is a Kremlin stooge. (And I wonder how many people are aware of how seriously retro and dumb that kind of casual labeling people as Russian dupes really is.)

In both the stories just cited, shady business connections loom large. I still expect that business and dirty-money related issues are likely to be the most serious crimes revealed by this whole process. That's not at all to diminish the seriousness of obstruction of justice or conspiracy charges. But those latter two are likely to be much harder to prove in a legally decisive sense than a lot of Democrats prefer to believe.

Josh Marshall at TPM has also been doing a good job of reporting on the story but keeping his analysis within the bounds of what's in the public record. As I've noted on this blog a number of times, there is no shortage of journalists and partisan Democrats who are not that restrained in their judgments. In Why The Trump/Russia ‘Skeptics’ Are Wrong 02/21/2018, a respectful critique of Politico's editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell's Confessions of a Russiagate Skeptic 02/18/2018. Josh makes this point, which is an important one:
I’m also skeptical that we’re ever going to find this kind of formal and explicit agreement between Trump and Putin (what Hounshell calls the “silver bullet”) to conspire together at the very highest levels. My skepticism springs from a few sources. One is my simple skepticism of all bad behavior – both my bane and salvation as a reporter. The other is that I’m just skeptical of things for which I have yet to see clear evidence.
This one, as well:
But the biggest problem with this skeptics argument is this idea that if that explicit and formal agreement doesn’t exist – the “smoking gun” as skeptic Blake Hounshell puts it – that there’s “nothing there.” This strikes me as entirely wrong, not only as a legal matter but far more as a civic matter. This is for many reasons but the principal one is that corrupt transactions are often tacit. You’re helping me. I’m helping you. It’s a good thing for both sides. No need to complicate it.

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