By Robert A. Vella
In the classic film of the Watergate scandal All the President’s Men, an FBI official (Mark Felt) known then only as “Deep Throat” tells Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward to “follow the money” in the pursuit of President Nixon’s criminal conduct:
Almost five decades later, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is doing the same thing in pursuit of President Trump’s suspected criminality. Considering that Mueller is a highly skilled prosecutor, and that Donald Trump’s entire adult life has been filled with all manner of corruption (e.g. shady business deals, bullish behavior, bribes, etc.), there is good reason to believe that Trump’s political fate will be similar to Nixon’s.
This morning, another legal bombshell was dropped on President Trump as he was departing for Argentina to attend the G20 summit. The news prompted him to cancel his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin who has escalated his military aggression against Ukraine by sealing off its ports in the Sea of Azov.
Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, who pleaded guilty in August to breaking campaign finance laws, made a surprise appearance in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday morning to plead guilty to a new criminal charge, the latest turn in the special counsel’s investigation of Mr. Trump and his inner circle.
At the court hearing, Mr. Cohen admitted to making false statements to Congress about his efforts to build a Trump Tower deal in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign. That real estate deal has been a focus of the special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russian operatives.
In written testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. Cohen played down the extent of his contact with the Kremlin about the potential project and made other false statements about the negotiations, which never led to a final deal.
Mr. Cohen’s new guilty plea comes at a particularly perilous time for Mr. Trump, whose presidency has been threatened by Mr. Cohen’s statements to investigators. In recent days, the president and his lawyers have increased their attacks on the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office.
The expected new guilty plea in Federal District Court marks the first time the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has charged Mr. Cohen. In exchange for pleading guilty and continuing to cooperate with Mr. Mueller, he may hope to receive a lighter sentence than he otherwise would.
And, Mueller’s awareness of Trump’s business ties to Russia is not new. His investigative team has been probing other relationships as well including Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort whose dealings with a Ukrainian operative for wealthy Russian oligarchs has already prompted criminal charges.
But Kilimnik, an elusive figure now indicted alongside Manafort on witness tampering charges, was far more involved in formulating pro-Russia political strategy with Manafort than previously known, according to internal memos and other business records obtained by the AP.
The records include a rare 2006 photograph of Kilimnik, a Ukrainian native, in an office setting with Manafort and other key players in Manafort’s consulting firm at the time. Some of the documents were later independently obtained by U.S. government investigators.
More than a decade before Russia was accused of surreptitiously trying to tilt the presidential election toward Trump, Manafort and Kilimnik pondered the risks to Russia if the country did not hone its efforts to influence global politics, the records show.
“The West is just a little more skillful at playing the modern game, where perception by the world public opinion and the spin is more important than what is actually going on,” Kilimnik wrote to Manafort in a December 2004 memo analyzing Russia’s bungled efforts to manipulate political events in former Soviet states. “Russia is ultimately going to lose if they do not learn how to play this game.”
Kilimnik — who special counsel Robert Mueller believes is currently in Russia and has ties to Russian intelligence — helped formulate Manafort’s pitches to clients in Russia and Ukraine, according to the records. Among Manafort’s clients were Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and other mega-wealthy Russians with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And, speaking of Manafort, his double-dealing in his now rejected plea deal is coming under intense legal scrutiny regarding potential obstruction of justice charges and other misconduct which could implicate not only Manafort and Trump but also their lawyers.
President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani could face being called as a witness or even charged with obstruction of justice if he overstepped the mark in his dealings with Paul Manafort’s legal team, according to legal analysts.
Giuliani revealed that the legal teams of both Trump and Manafort were “often” in contact even after the president’s indicted former campaign manager signed a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation.
Manafort authorized his lawyers to give briefings to Trump’s team on what Mueller prosecutors were asking, Giuliani said, giving the president’s defense valuable insight as they prepare to fight back against whatever comes at them in the Russia investigation’s final report.
“This whole odd joint defense agreement between Manafort and the Trump lawyers, that’s a very reckless thing to do. I mean, you just don’t do that when someone’s cooperating,” Shanlon Wu, the former attorney to Rick Gates, Manafort’s indicted business associate, said during a panel discussion on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° on Wednesday night.
“And the most intriguing aspect of that is, that could convert the lawyers into witnesses. If Trump’s team is telling Manafort, ‘Hey, don’t say this, ease up on that, say something else,’ that is obstruction and they could end up having to testify about that.”
Wu said the situation would “essentially pierce” attorney-client privilege.