Saturday, January 12, 2019

Manafort's 'Smoking Gun' on Collusion With Russia

      Paul Manafort, while serving as chairman of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, met with a Russian spy and gave him confidential polling data from the campaign even as reports were already swirling of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. The stunning, unintentional disclosure in a court filing by Manafort's own lawyers struck some legal experts and Democratic politicians alike as the long-sought proof of the Trump campaign's collusion with Russian agents that Trump has repeatedly and insistently denied.
      A "smoking gun," the prominent Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted after the Washington Post story went online on Tuesday [Jan. 8]. Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat and the party's ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had a similar reaction the next day. "This appears as the closest we've seen yet to real, live, actual collusion," Warner told CNN's Manu Raju in a corridor interview.
      The White House, consumed with the impasse over Trump's border wall and partial government shutdown, had little reaction beyond Trump's perfunctory denial two days later. "I didn't know anything about it," he told reporters when questioned on the White House lawn. Trump apologists began intimating, however, that Manafort was freelancing in his own interest when he passed on valuable political data to a Russian he knew from representing the pro-Russian elements in neighboring Ukraine.
      The disclosure of Manafort's campaign-time gift to his Russian associate, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, came from a filing by Manafort's lawyers aimed at limiting the eventual prison sentence for their convicted felon client. Manafort is due to be sentenced in March, but special counsel Robert Mueller's office has charged him with lying as part of a plea deal and warned on that basis of asking for more prison time.
      Manafort's lawyers deny that their client has been lying to Mueller's office and apparently included the information about the meeting with Kilmnik to prove their client's bona fides. They intended to redact that sentence from the court filing, but it emerged unredcated apparently because of a formatting error on their part.
      The disclosure of Manafort's meeting with a Russian well known to have ties to the Kremlin's intelligence services makes unavoidable the inference that Russia used the information better to target its interference in the 2016 presidential campaign for the benefit of Vladimir Putin's preferred candidate, Trump. The many questions unaddressed so far include, for example, whether Manafort told Trump in advance, after the fact, or never at all.
      With those questions pending, however, a leading election law expert surmises that the disclosure shows an apparent violation of federal campaign finance law. Paul Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at the venerable campaign finance watchdog group Common Cause, notes that federal law flatly prohibits foreign nationals from directly or indirectly making contributions to U.S. campaigns and likewise prohibits U.S. campaigns from soliciting or receiving contributions from foreign nationals.
      Campaign experts interviewed by various news organizations over the next few days emphasized that the information Manafort acknowledges turning over apparently went beyond publicly available polling data and instead included the kind of "analytics" useful in precision targeting of political messages. Manafort's anonymous apologists suggested that he was providing the information to his Ukrainian clients by way of buttressing their backing of a pro-Russian "peace plan" for the region.
      Other experts emphasized that the Ukrainians had no real use for the data, but the Russians — based on their now confirmed interference in the 2016 campaign — clearly did know how it could be used and presumably used it for Trump's benefit. On that basis, Ryan posits that the Trump campaign violated federal law by receiving an "in-kind contribution" from foreign nationals in the form of "coordinated expenditures' and by failing to report those contributions and expenditures.
      As with the Trump campaign's failure to report the hush-money payment to Trump's porn-star accuser Stormy Daniels, this apparent campaign finance violation is no inadvertent bookkeeping oversight, but deliberate concealment of information that voters had a right to know before casting their ballots. President Obama, it will be recalled, backed away at the time from disclosing the intelligence community's assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election. A Trump campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission would have been proof positive of the campaign's dalliance with the United States' most significant geopolitical adversary.
      Now, more than two years after the fact, the evidence shows that Trump campaign operatives had more than 100 contacts with Russian agents during the course of the 2016 campaign despite warnings from the FBI of the Russians' attempts at insinuation. Trump's response as candidate and later as president was so inexplicable, the New York Times has now disclosed in a stunning report, that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation after the firing of FBI director James Comey to determine whether Trump was consciously or unwittingly doing Russia's bidding as president.
      In a parliamentary system, the time would be ripe for a vote of no-confidence from the people's elected representatives in what is now a Democratic-majority House of Representatives. In the United States' presidential system, the constitutional remedy is impeachment, a procedure the Framers devised in part to guard against improper foreign influence on the chief executive. That remedy awaits the final report from Mueller's office but faces a seemingly insuperable obstacle in the Senate unless Republicans realize that Trump's presidency threatens not just the country but perhaps their own political fortunes as well.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

For New Congress: Impeachment, Voting Rights, Ethics

      To impeach or not to impeach: that is the question now that the House of Representatives' Democratic majority and any conscientious Republicans are in a position to exercise that constitutional remedy for an abusive president. Impeachment hearings would suck a lot of political air out of Capitol Hill cloakrooms, but Democrats can and should pursue a progressive and reform-minded policy agenda at the same time.
      The House Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., may be best advised to await the final report from special counsel Robert Mueller before broaching the issue. In the meantime, however, the committee could open hearings on the omnibus voting rights and ethics bill, introduced symbolically as H.R. 1 by Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and hero of the great voting rights movement of the 1960s.
      The committee could also join with other House panels by looking into the ambitious agenda for rule of law and ethics reform that the Brennan Center for Justice unveiled in October under the auspices of a bipartisan task force. The 60-page report, replete with 30 pages of footnotes, includes more than two dozen proposals to prevent White House interference with Justice Department investigations and strengthen ethics requirements and official accountability.
      In an alternate political universe, the voting rights and ethics reform proposals would gain bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans alike. In present-day Washington, however, any of these democracy-enhancing proposals would face a steep uphill fight in the Republican-controlled Senate after hypothetical approval by the Democratic-controlled House.
      Lewis, arrested and beaten as he participated in the voting rights march at Selma, Alabama, in 1965, was joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a dozen other Democrats in unveiling the voting rights bill from the House floor on Friday [Jan. 4]. The 571-page bill includes provisions, among others, to require automatic voter registration for federal elections, expand early voting, and limit the kind of aggressive cancellation of registered voters seen in Lewis's home state in the run-up to the hotly contested gubernatorial race in November.
      Republican Brian Kemp, running for governor while serving conflicted as the state elections chief, won that election by besting Democrat Stacey Abrams with a margin of 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast. Lewis said he is convinced that the results in Georgia and its neighbor state Florida were changed by "the way votes were not counted and purged" in both states. "That must never happen again in our country," he said.
      Voting rights need not be a partisan issue, but Republicans have turned it into a political background over the past two decades after concluding that steps to increase voter registration and participation help Democrats and hurt Republicans. They masquerade this partisan imperative with utterly bogus claims of rampant voter fraud that independent election law experts uniformly reject.
      The ethics reforms proposed by the Brennan Center, the New York University Law School think tank established as a living memorial to the late Supreme Court justice, are likewise not inherently partisan. Indeed, several fit well within the "drain the swamp" mantra mouthed by Donald Trump while a candidate and then forgotten in the White House, such as tightening financial disclosure requirements and strengthening the enforcement powers of the Office of Government Ethics.
      Other proposals, however, are aimed directly at positions that Trump took as candidate and continues to defend as president. The eight-member task force, co-chaired by former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara and the former Republican governor and Cabinet member Christine Whitman, proposed, for example, that Congress pass a law requiring all candidates for president and vice president to disclose their personal and business income tax returns.
      Trump broke with a 40-year-old precedent in refusing to disclose his income tax returns and, despite vague assurances of eventual disclosure, has continued to shield those returns as president. Transparency advocates in Congress, however, are being urged to invoke congressional oversight powers to demand the returns from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
      The task force also recommended that Congress pass legislation to enforce the Constitution's Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses, the provisions that prohibit the president or other federal officials from profiting in their positions through payments from foreign or state governments. Trump currently faces three lawsuits for his notorious violations of these two clauses, but the strongest of three — brought by the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland — was put on hold after the judge approved subpoenas for Trump Organization business records.
      In addition, the task force called for Congress to eliminate the ethics exemption for presidents and vice presidents and require divestment of any personal holdings unless placed in a blind trust. As candidate, Trump made a big show of turning his businesses over to his sons, but he continues to have an interest in the businesses while refusing to disclose the details.
      These issues are more than enough for Congress to work on without taking on impeachment however urgent that issue. Despite her locker-room language, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected Democrat from Michigan, was right to point in an op-ed in USA Today to the "overwhelming evidence" that Trump has committed such impeachable offenses as obstructing justice, violating the Emoluments Clause, and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election. Mueller's final report on those questions may be too much even for the craven Republicans on Capitol Hill to ignore.