Yves here. The media’s fixation on the scary Putin monster takes energy away from opposing Trump on real issues: health care, climate, dropping life expectancy, the surveillance state, to name a few. It also validates the effort of the CIA and certain elements of the military to meddle in domestic politics in a shockingly open manner, which is a terrible precedent.
As Lambert wrote, “If we can’t win on the facts, we do not deserve to win.” As Ilargi said yesterday:
It’s not about whether Trump is or has ever been guilty of anything he’s accused of, it’s that the insinuating narratives about that have long been written and repeated ad nauseam. It’s about whether the witch hunt exemplified by PropOrNot makes objective news gathering impossible. And the only possible response to that question must be affirmative….
Does Trump deserve being resisted? It certainly looks that way much of the time. But he should be resisted with facts, not innuendo of yellow paper quality. That destroys the media, and the media are needed to maintain a democracy.
Gaius’ post focuses on how the “get Trump on Russia” campaign has gone down a series of rabbit holes and his opponents are now likely to shift to “extra-Constitutional means” to remove him. In the face of all of media fixation on Trump and Russia, it’s important to keep in mind:
1.Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs. Both the strong form claim that many seem to believe about Trump (“Trump is a Russian agent”) or its weaker form variant (“Trump under Russian influence”) extraordinary, since both amount to charges of treason.
Yet despite months of press and pundit yammering, nothing has come within hailing distance of proving either claim, despite Trump being the object of extensive oppo by the Republicans, then the Democrats, and throughout, one presumes, by members of the military/surveillance state that badly want to escalate a conflict with Russia (both in the United Kingdom, and this country).
It is hard to fathom how the Russian government could get influence over a US billionaire based on Trump officiating at a beauty pageant and setting up some legal vehicles for licensing deals that never got done. And the other theories of how Russia would have sway over him don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Trump leads an over-the-top life. A sex scandal, even if there were one, wouldn’t dent him, unless, per the cliche, it involved catching Trump in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.
Trump is seriously underlevered on his major real estate holdings, so the idea that he has been under financial stress in the election time frame is also quite a stretch. He could borrow $1 billion out of his major properties without much difficulty if he needed cash.
Selling condos to foreigners does not give them influence over you. Does the person to whom you sold your house have any influence over you?
Another urban legend with respect to Trump is that he couldn’t get financing after his early 1990s bankruptcies. The fact is that Trump is one of only two major NYC developers (the other being Steve Ross’ Related Companies who was a client of mine when I was at Sumitomo Bank) to get through debt restructurings and keep virtually all of their former empires. My immediate client at Related, who led the 18 months of negotiations, was deeply offended that Trump emerged pretty much as unscathed as Related did, because he regarded Trump as a blowhard who didn’t deserve that good a deal.
Trump’s bankruptcies were of specific ventures. Trump never went bankrupt personally. Moreover, banks are happy to lend to post-bankruptcy borrowers because they have cleaned up balance sheets.
With Trump real estate deals, a bank would look at the project to see if the economics made sense and if the developer had a track record of being able to build and stay pretty close to the projected time and cost assumptions.
Some readers pointed to a report by a sportswriter that Eric Trump said Trump was financing golf courses using Russian money. This golf course claim is ludicrous when you look at Forbes and see how little debt financing of any type was used on these properties. Trump has no debt on his three Irish and Scottish golf courses and owns them 100%. He has 10 golf courses in the US which he also owns outright. Even with the value of the US courses dropping from $297 million in 2015 to $225 million in 2016, the debt against them is a mere $18.5 million, an inconsequential amount.
But even if this had been true, so what? These are individual projects, and if they went bust, the lenders would seize the asset. They’d have no recourse to Trump and hence no ability to influence him.
How about the claim that Trump has been laundering money for Russians? The amounts needed to finance developments or even to buy high-end condos would be large enough that the funds would have to go through banks. It is the banks that are be responsible for the money laundering checks (and separately, laundering Russian money means cheating the Russian tax man…. If we so hate Putin, wouldn’t be be in favor of that???)
And please do not bring up Trump’s tax returns. The fact that Democrats and pundits keep harping on this is an embarrassment. Personal tax returns do not show who is the recipient of interest and principal payments. On top of that, Trump would be borrowing through corporate entities, so it is not likely that he has any personal borrowings save a mortgage on his primary residence. It would be dopey from a liability and tax perspective for him to borrow personally. The reason Trump is refusing to release his tax returns is likely due to some or all of:
He had some years where his income was crappy, which would dent his “great businessman” narrative
He paid very little in taxes some years, which would allow critics to depict him as not paying his fair share and potentially stretching the tax code
He had Swiss bank accounts. Recall the IRS gave a tax amnesty and Romney showed in the one year of tax returns he released that he had had a small one. Tax experts believe the reason that Romney didn’t release two years of returns, which had been customary, was that part of the amnesty was that you refiled prior year returns and paid the taxes due. Those refiled returns were “stapled,” meaning the refiling and past tax evasion would be stinkin’ obvious.
2. Trump by virtue of being a billionaire and separately having hastily assembled a political team (and churned though quite a few operatives) will have relationships all over the world through the people in his very large immediate circle, who by nature themselves will be very well connected.
But any of them coducting business with Russia, or even close ties, does not translate into influence over Trump. Both legs of the argument would need to be proven. The first is that the member of Trump’s circle didn’t just do business somehow in Russia, but that the Russian government had “influence” over them. That is a strong claim right there. The second is that that individual was able to sway Trump and on a consistent basis too. Trump’s famously erratic behavior alone makes the second leg a very high bar to surmount.
We’ve been looking at this for months. Perhaps readers can come up with something closer to a smoking gun, but none of these appear to be one:
Former campaign strategist, the prince of darkness Paul Manafort, who worked for Trump for all of four months and was fired. Plus his Russia connections are mainly through Ukraine. Podesta has as strong if not stronger Russia ties, is a much more central play to Clinton and no one is making a stink about that. And that’s before you get to the Clinton involvement in a yuuge uranium sale to Russia, which even the New York Times confirmed (but wrote such a weedy story that you have to read carefully to see that).
Carter Page, who was even more peripheral
Michael Flynn was involved relatively early with the Trump campaign. But if anything the outspoken and politically incorrect Flynn looks to have “evolved” some of his positions to echo Trump’s, such as on waterboarding . And despite complaints that Trump acted slowly on the warning of Sally Yates, Flynn was out a mere 18 days afterwards. It is hard to see that as slow given that Team Trump said it needed to do its own checking. Moreover, the Yates warning was that Flynn “could be blackmailed” over his failure to come clean on his Russian ties, not that he actually had done anything improper.
Jeff Sessions’ two conversations with the Russian ambassador, once at a party and the other time in his role as member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (in fairness, the beef is that Sessions failed to disclose this when asked at his confirmation hearing).
The parties that have the most influence on Trump are Ivanka and Jared Kushner. But they have yet to be shown to have any significant Russia ties.
And even in depicting that they are Trump’s most influential advisors, a New York Times story made clear that while Trump does listen to them, he relishes his role as the final authority. Moreover, it appears that the key to Kushner’s power is that he is largely deferential, in that he operates more as Trump’s can-do man, figuring out how to implement what Trump wants, serving as a consigliere rather than a strategist. Key sections of that article:
At the center of the Trump presidency is a paradox: Even allies acknowledge Mr. Trump is impulsive, indifferent to preparation and prone to embracing the last advice offered. He needs a strong hand to guide him, but insists on appearing in firm command, so any aide perceived as pulling strings can face his wrath sooner or later. It was Mr. Trump, not his children, who pushed Mr. Bannon to the margins, motivated less by ideology than by dissatisfaction with recent failures and his perception that his chief strategist was running an off-the-books operation to aggrandize himself at Mr. Trump’s expense….
For his part, Mr. Kushner has succeeded in part because he has never tried “to explain what Jared wants,” Mr. Gingrich said. “He is very attuned to listening to Trump and trying to figure out what Trump needs, and what Trump is trying to get done.”
So far, all the Dems and the media have come up with are some kinda-sorta connections to Russia. “X has done business with Y” is hardly proof of influence.
3. And as to the timing of the firing of Comey being troubling, bear in mind that in Senate hearings yesterday, the acting director denied press reports the day prior that Comey had been seeking an increase in funding for the Russia investigation.
I find this take from the BBC as persuasive as any, that this is another manifestation of Trump’s thin skin and implusiveness, similar to when he dig himself damage by lashing out twice against the father of the Gold Star soldier who criticized him. Recall that Trump was surprised when Chuck Schumer warned him that firing Comey would be a big mistake. Trump apparently talked himself into thinking that the Democrats would support the move or at least not oppose it since they had also been critical of Comey. That’s another sign of poor decision-making: being even more subject to confirmation bias than most people by being bunkered with his loyalists plus deeply invested in the macho of being a man of action (“Don’t bother me with details!”). From the BBC:
What particularly angered him [Trump], the reports say, was Comey saying it made him “mildly nauseous” to think the FBI may have swayed the election.
This hit right at President Trump’s psychological weak spot – the legitimacy of his victory in the election.
Mr Trump frequently talks up the size of his win in November and often disparages people, or photos, or agencies that suggest he didn’t win big…
Mr Trump hated what he heard in Mr Comey’s testimony. It made him angry, he felt disparaged and he hit back. This, we understand, was Mr Trump’s MO as a business man…
This may be about the Russia probe getting more intense, but there is still no evidence that Mr Trump colluded with Moscow to affect the outcome of the vote. None.
It doesn’t look good that the White House fires the man who’s in charge of the investigation but it may be just that, unfortunate optics.
But it may simply be about Mr Trump’s personality. He doesn’t forgive grudges and feels somehow unfairly treated. Then he acts fast, sometimes impulsively, especially when he’s angry…
If the firing of Mr Comey is an example, it’s not a good sign for long-term stability in this White House.
Mind you, I am not saying there are not financial skeletons in Trump’s closet. And plenty of his conduct since he had been in office has been deeply disturbing. The fact that he has been in the New York City real estate business, which back in the day had substantial Mafia influence, and in the casino business, means there is probably some real dirt if anyone could dig deep enough. But despite the media clearly being keen to publish this sort of story, no insiders have leaked anything juicy beyond what was out there during the campaign (like the use of illegal Polish workers in building Trump Tower and trying to say he knew nothing about it years later) and the press hasn’t unearthed anything more on its own.
As for Gauis’ concern about a Constitutional crisis, the Democrats and security state has been working hard to foment one since Trump won. Lambert remarked early on that the Clinton team was trying to change the Constitutional order by making who became President subject to the consent of the CIA and military, a staple of third world countries. I also think Gauis underestimates the amount of relevant support for Trump. Republicans want their bills signed and Trump will do that. As long as they control the House, contra Gaius, I think Trump is going nowhere.
By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
What an odd and frightening place we’ve found ourselves.
Before about a month ago, I’d have agreed with the person who wrote, “The Trump-Russian investigation was a rabbit hole with no rabbit at the bottom.” To twist the metaphor, I’d put it this way: The Clinton part of the Democratic Party, in an effort to maintain Party control and advance a “she didn’t lose” narrative, kept looking at “Russia did it” angles like Alice looking for a hole deep enough to jump into.
They looked at a lot of holes, but none that seemed to have real evidence in them. Recently, though, information started coming out about Mike Flynn, and potentially Jared Kushner, that made it look like Russia-hunting Democrats had actually found something of substance — actual documentable election collusion with actual Russia, as opposed to “maybe Russia gave emails to WikiLeaks” or “maybe Trump cheered them on a little too loudly,” with a strong side of “it had to be Russia somehow, right? because Clinton won the popular vote.”
The comparison that comes to mind is Bill Clinton and Whitewater, another investigation in search of a crime, any crime. The Whitewater inquiry, initially about a land deal, eventually turned up Paula Jones, then Monica Lewinsky, then Bill Clinton’s perjury (finally, a crime!) — but still, the investigation ended miles from where it started.
Same with this. I now think there’s a there there, but it’s not the “there” that Russia hunters were chasing when they set out. I believe they’ve now found something of real substance — the cover-up certainly looks vigorous — but that substance is now miles from where they started looking. As with Whitewater, it seems the investigators got lucky, though I’m glad or our sakes they did.
So where are we now? I’ll lay decent odds the administration will appoint no special prosecutor, and if they do, no independent special prosecutor. It would take a revolt from congressional Republicans to prove me wrong. That could happen, but odds that it will? Less than 50-50 as I see it now.
Which means the country stays in its current state, ruled by a man and a party actively perverting the Constitution to enable obvious corruption and — finally, what the Democrats alleged all along on no evidence — apparent collusion by that man with a foreign power to gain domestic power. Whether that collusion was decisive or not in his victory, matters not at all.
(Interestingly, this is the same activity that Reagan and Bush I were accused of, the foreign power in that case being Iran. Neither political party, though, nor the media of that day would allow a complete investigation, and even went so far as to ostracize from mainstream employment a very good investigative reporter, Robert Parry, for pursuing it anyway.)
All of which means that if Trump’s Russia doings aren’t formally investigated, either by a special investigator or by Congress, elites who want him gone will have to force him out by extra-constitutional means.
Which suggests three questions. One, who wants him to go, since that will determine the shape of the opposition he faces? Two, who wants him to stay in office? And three, what are those means? Others may answer differently, but I’ll offer these.
First, those in elites positions who want him to go include:
• All Democratic officeholders.
• Many Republican officeholders (those who would much prefer a President Pence).
• Many of those who work in the bowels of the CIA, FBI, and NSA — highly placed rank-and-file operatives in position to leak information and do other substantial damage. (Note what happened during the election when those in the DC office of the FBI leaked damaging Clinton material because they disagreed with Comey’s refusal to recommend an indictment. It’s six months later, but the same dynamic.)
• Others in the national security establishment who don’t trust Trump to be warlike enough. This ropes in neocons both in and out of the military.
• The broader neocon establishment/infrastructure, people who would have supported Clinton’s wars and staffed her administration, all of whom hate Trump’s statements (true ones in my view) about NATO’s irrelevance. Saying goodbye to NATO starts the tearing down of American military-backed hegemony. NATO’s sole relevance is to structure that hegemony in Europe.
Note that the list of Trump’s elite enemies is likely to grow in number of individuals, if not in number of groups. Note also that the key group is the second, Republican officeholders. If they turn against him in large numbers, even if only in private, Trump won’t remain in office. Also, if they support him sufficiently, even if only in private, it will be up to the last three groups, working together, to pressure Trump to leave.
Second, who are Trump’s supporters? Who in real power wants him to stay in office? I believe it’s a small list:
• Many in his family.
• Steve Bannon types (who are, note, anti-NATO).
• The Rex Tillerson deals-with-Russia crowd.
• The Scott Pruitt anti-regulation crowd.
• Some Republican Tea Party officeholders.
As I said, a small list, and I think a shrinking one.
Finally, what are the “extra-constitutional means” of making him leave?
The Constitution provides impeachment by Congress — articles of impeachment voted in the House, a trial in the Senate — as the only structural redress to a “Charles I” problem. (The goal of congressional impeachment is to permit our version of Parliament to “kill the king” without actually killing anyone. Charles I must have been fresh in the founders’ minds when they wrote that provision.) That’s all the constitutional remedy there is.
If Trump doesn’t get the “Nixon treatment,” official investigation and trial by Congress, elites who want him to leave have to work outside the Constitution. Options include:
• Relentless, damaging leaks and innuendo from all quarters aimed at turning public opinion against him.
• Privately issued threats and rewards — sticks and carrots — to induce him to step down. Remember, intelligence agencies of various stripes likely have almost all the goods on almost all officials who matter to them. Imagine what’s hoarded in NSA databases, or what FBI background checks reveal. Imagine what secrets angry CIA field agents might dig up.
If you doubt that issuing private threats like these could happen, do you imagine that agency use of damaging information to influence politics ended with Hoover? No Praetorian Guard, once it grows muscular, reverts back to a simple barracks unit just because new leadership arrives. When groups like that change culture, they rarely change back.
The threats are already coming out. Consider this post-firing report in the Washington Post: “Many [FBI] employees said they were furious about the [Comey] firing … One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey’s firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are attacks that won’t soon be forgotten. Trump had ‘essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI, one official said. ‘I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.'”
“Attacks that won’t soon be forgotten” and “a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.” The covert State is at war with the overt State. (Be sure to ask yourself, if you like these comments, if you’d like them if someone else were president.)
• Threats amounting to blackmail and, if not physical violence, violence to his wealth, business interests, and “brand.” (“We will destroy your brand forever, you will never do business again, if you don’t get out. Here’s how we’ll do it. First…”)
I’ll say at the outset that real physical violence against anyone involved in this is almost certainly off the table. For one thing, if something did happen physically to Trump, his family, or his close advisors — regardless of who did it — everyone in the country would assume Trump’s enemies’ guilt, and assume it with the same fervor and conviction they now assume his own.
One last thought. This country has had a constitutional crisis every 70 years, after which the government restructured itself. In effect, we have been ruled by three Constitutions, not just one, each producing, in practice, very different governments and societies. We’re rapidly producing a crisis that will produce a fourth.
In order, our constitutional crises are:
• 1789, the Revolutionary War and transition from colony to slave-holding republic.
• 1865, the Civil War and transition from divided slave-holding nation with two competing economies to united freed-slave state. This change took down the Southern agricultural aristocracy (by depriving it of the nearly free labor it depended on); made the Northern industrial economy nationally ascendant; and put us firmly on the path to first-world industrial powerhouse.
• 1933, the Great Depression and transition from a light-handed pro-business government to a heavy-handed regulatory state.
• And now, this.
What will the next American Constitution look like? Turkey’s and Hungary’s, with their dictators and single-party governments wrapped in the old constitutional forms? A naked kleptocracy, where constitutional forms are simply ignored, like those in many third-world countries? A state in which forms are observed but the hand with real power belongs mainly to the “security” apparatus? In many countries, coups by segments of the elite, blatant or covert, are welcomed as correctives and tacitly approved (another way constitutions are revised without being rewritten).
If Trump is not successfully impeached, and it looks for now like he won’t be, our government as practiced will once more dramatically change, as it did when Bush’s crimes were not addressed, and Obama’s after him (never forget that targeted assassination is an innovation Obama made lawful).
But whatever happens next, whether Trump is impeached or not, I think we’ve already been changed as a nation forever by what’s already led to this moment. After all, in 2016 the nation wanted someone like Sanders to be president, wanted an agent of change, and look what it got. This is in fact our second failed attempt this century at change that makes our lives better.
I don’t think that point’s been lost on anyone. We’re in transition no matter what happens to Trump. Transition to what, we’ll have to find out later.
And something else to consider. The last three times the government fundamentally changed, we got lucky. We found leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt — up to the task, in chaotic and troubling times, of steering an altered ship to calmer water and a safer port.
Will we get lucky once more? We can only hope.