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26 September 2017 05:52 (South Africa)
World

‘Lawyer Up’ Time: Trump Administration lumbers deeper into the swamp

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: Republican Donald Trump talks with son Donald Trump Jr.(L) at the end of the second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, 09 October 2016. EPA/SAUL LOEB

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” has become the motto of the Trump family in recent days. J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews the newest wrinkles.

For over a year now, the Trump presidential campaign – and then the Trump administration – has steadfastly denied it was in any way connected to any Russian government efforts to fiddle the American 2016 election. And, in fact, they generally tried to avoid even accepting the idea that any such meddling had happened in the first place.

The Trumpenproletariat and a still-obedient nomenklatura had insisted such an obvious smear campaign was no more than an unjustified, unfair, fraudulent witch hunt. In this, they were apparently attempting to conjure up some version of ancient ancestral memories of the mass hysteria of those 17th-century Salem trials in colonial Massachusetts, a deeply superstitious Middle Ages and the burning of accused men and women at the stake, or even, perhaps, the events of the more recent McCarthyist anti-communist era in which congressionally orchestrated witch hunts destroyed the lives of dozens of left-leaning writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, along with the occasional actual communist party supporter.

But then came along a self-inflicted wound, an “oops moment” that any B-grade Hollywood screenwriter would have been too embarrassed to type out for himself. Trump Junior spilt the beans on himself, releasing a whole string of emails about his very own meeting with a bunch of (officially unofficial) Russians, just as the New York Times was about to publish some of this very information. And then the Trump administration became becalmed and the presumed culprits began to really lawyer up for the storm that is about to break.

A Washington friend of the lawyerly persuasion, watching this coming storm, commented on the sequence, noting that after someone first leaked the Junior story to the New York Times, Junior first responded with misinformation and then was “forced to correct the misinformation in response to further leaks, to which he responds with more misinformation, followed by more leaks.... The leaker is like a cat playing with a mouse. The Trumps are proving themselves to be amateurs at this sort of thing. Maybe they were pros in New York when they dealt with the NY Post and local cops and politicians, but they have NO idea how to deal with DC, where Congress, the FBI, the intelligence community, and a small mob of talented investigative journalists can’t be bullied or bought.”

Just by the way, in defending his son, the president has referred to Junior as a “good boy”, rather as if he were a 15-year-old caught by the town police engaging in a teenage prank of spreading peanut butter on car windows as Halloween tricks, rather than the father of five who happens to be the same age as the president of France.

As the world now knows, a music promoter by the name of Rob Goldstone, a man with ties to both the Trumps and Russian business figures with ties to the Kremlin – including a pop singer and his dad who had partnered up with Trump Senior when he had brought the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013 – contacted Junior to arrange a meeting to hand over some reputedly sizzling, hot, juicy stuff on Hillary Clinton, the ostensible Democratic Party nominee. This was supposed to be material fresh from Russian government sources. After emailing Goldstone that, he, Junior, loved this plan, they met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (someone working on getting financial sanctions against Russia rolled back and protecting some Russian money launderers in court), along with a dual national Russian-American lobbyist, Rinat Akmetshin (reputedly a man with historical ties to the Russian security apparatus).

To show off his star power, Junior brought along first brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort. As the story has evolved, additional names have been added to the confreres beyond Goldstone and Veselnitskaya, such as Akmetshin, then a note-taker and an interpreter named Anatoli Samochornov. While Trump senior has now said he had not been briefed on this meeting at the time, it did take place in his company’s own offices, so who really knows for sure.

Sadly for Junior at least, the information was not as advertised, and so there was no handover of any “good stuff”. Regardless, none of these bright sparks from the Trump campaign ever thought it was out of the norm or worthy of mention to the FBI or anybody else that they were being played by Russian dirty tricks cut-outs, or, potentially, by the Russian government. Not a peep from the lot of them.

Journalists are now busy piecing together the intersecting time lines of the sequence of Junior’s emails and the meeting, together with all of Daddy Trump’s statements about the hacking of Clinton emails and that subsequent email dump into Wikileaks, as well as his public mutterings that there would be some startling announcements about Clinton’s hidden secrets shortly. Put this whole tapestry in the “more to come” pile and mark it for the attention of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the man now investigating the whole Russia business.

As this newest circumstance came into view, the Trump camp’s position suddenly shifted 180 degrees. They had begun by saying, “Naw, no contact, no co-operation, no collusion, none, nada!” But now the storyline is, “Well, okay, Donald Trump Junior did take that meeting, but, sadly, the people he met with didn’t have any real dirt to dish; we don’t know who they really were representing; and besides, just about everybody does it anyway, so no harm, no foul.” But – clearly this one ain’t fake news. And if it wasn’t some form of outreach meant to lead to collusion, co-operation or collegiality between the Trump forces and those working with the connivance of Vladimir Putin’s government, it doesn’t seem to have been for want of trying to do so.

As The Economist has noted in their current issue,

It is no good arguing, in the younger Mr Trump’s defence, that he gave the e-mails up himself: he knew the New York Times was about to publish them, because it had asked him for his side of the story. It scarcely helps to note that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, says she does not work for the Kremlin. Her use of such a meeting to assail American sanctions, a neuralgic subject for Vladimir Putin, suggests that she was not simply a private citizen. Nor does it help that Donald junior says she did not, in the end, provide the dirt on Hillary Clinton he craved. Whoever she was, whatever the outcome, the intent to collude is plain. That vindicates what has always been the real charge: not that the Russians swayed the election, a claim that is impossible to verify, but that Mr Trump’s team overstepped the bounds of propriety, and maybe the law.”

The Trump forces have started to retaliate with a red herring in the form of, “Hey, wait a minute, some Democratic Party freelancer operatives tried to get negative information on Paul Manafort from Ukrainian sources back during the campaign.” Manafort was Trump’s second campaign manager and the problem with this thrust, of course, is that derogatory information on that fellow was already all over the place. It was hardly a state secret he’d worked with seriously sleazy characters out that way in the East in the recent past – and for lots of cash.

In light of the way Junior’s relationship with problematic Russians over potential Hillary dirt has continued to evolve in public statements, the various members of the Trump family – and presumably anybody else touched by this narrative or likely to be so touched – have begun to do some heavy-duty “lawyering up”, as they like to say on television crime shows, calling in some of the top criminal lawyers in Washington.

And most recently, it has also been noted that Junior’s legal bills began being paid from Trump campaign funds just a few days before the story about the abortive meeting with the Russians had reached the public. And, of course, all of this seems perfectly on the above-board side of the ledger, right?

While all this has been taking place, the first real cracks in Republican/conservative support for Trump Senior have appeared. One of Fox News’ own, anchor Shepard Smith, suddenly went rogue in a broadcast tirade against Trump’s behaviour. Then, columnist Charles Krauthammer, a significant right-wing voice for decades in Washington, finally wrote of his disgust with the whole shabby mess, effectively saying he’d had enough.

In this, Krauthammer has joined a growing list of leading conservative voices, including commentator-columnists Bill Kristol, Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, David Brooks and Jennifer Rubin, as all of them have given up trying to rationalise a way out of the Trumpster’s very own moral swamp and ethics-free presidency. David Brooks, in fact, has so thrown in the towel that he traced Junior’s moral vacuity to a four-generation-long line of Trumps who all viewed the world as a place where morality and virtue were extravagances not much worth embracing.

After reviewing four generations of Trumpian behaviour, Brooks wrote,

I repeat this history because I don’t think moral obliviousness is built in a day. It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a person’s mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing; to take the normal human yearning to be good and replace it with a single-minded desire for material conquest; to take the normal human instinct for kindness and replace it with a law-of-the-jungle mentality.

It took a few generations of the House of Trump, in other words, to produce Donald Jr. The Donald Trump Jr. we see through the Russia scandal story is not malevolent: He seems to be simply oblivious to the idea that ethical concerns could possibly play a role in everyday life. When the Russian government offer came across his email, there doesn’t seem to have been a flicker of concern. Instead, he replied with that tone of simple bro glee that we remember from other scandals.”

Bringing this forward to its impact on the Trump presidency, The Economist noted,

Not only does this [most recent revelation] reinforce a pattern of fishy meetings involving Russian officials and Mr Trump’s advisers, many of which were mysteriously forgotten when they filled out security forms or testified in Congress; this looks worse, for both the Trumps and America. It is worse than Mr Kushner’s bizarre bid to set up a back-channel to talk to Moscow. It is more nakedly collusive than what has so far emerged about Michael Flynn, forced out as national security adviser for lying about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador. It ought to be damning…. The scandal is becoming a clash between the worst aspects of American democracy and the best. The worst is its bilious, myopic hyper-partisanship; the best the unrivalled ability of American institutions, including journalists whom Mr Trump reviles, to hold the powerful to account. Legally and politically, the ending is unclear. Morally, the verdict is already in.” [Italics added.]

The most recent public opinion polling has also detected a softening of support for Trump, with overall backing now only at 36% and disapproval at 58% – although, to be sure, core Republicans largely remain in his corner. But it is data like this, however, especially if such levels hold through this year and on into the new one, that increasingly worry congressional Republicans. This is especially true for those who must stand for re-election in the 2018 mid-term election in congressional seats that have been hotly contested in recent years and that could fall away from the Republicans as a result of their being tied to the Trumps.

Meanwhile, this steady drip, drip, drip of tawdry revelations, corrections, restatements (just as with Jared Kushner’s repeated revisions of his security clearance form to, belatedly, include dozens of problematic contacts with foreign actors – a behaviour that would have gotten anybody else precluded from a security clearance for their inability to recall their history accurately) is taking its toll on the president’s ability to gain traction with Congress for his putative legislative agenda – and their ability to focus on legislation, rather than time used in equivocating on the president’s statements and mis-statements.

Moreover, support internationally will continue to bleed away as foreign governments increasingly seek to find ways around the president’s tweets in order to determine their relationships with the US on things beyond a photo moment with him, or a slice of that “exquisite chocolate cake”, as with Chinese President Xi at the Mar-a-lago resort in Florida. Taken together with the president’s apparent inability to separate his support for his family from the national interest, or to conflate the two of them together, this is not a happy time for many Americans. DM

Photo: Republican Donald Trump talks with son Donald Trump Jr.(L) at the end of the second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, 09 October 2016. The third and final debate will be held 19 October in Nevada. EPA/SAUL LOEB

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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