By Robert A. Vella
There’s lots of important news to cover today, so let’s get right to it.
Manafort’s bad day
The judge presiding over the criminal sentencing of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort ruled yesterday that he had deliberately lied to federal prosecutors which abrogates the plea deal he had signed with Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel Office. The ruling cancels his status as a cooperating witness and eliminates any possibility of a reduced sentence. Manafort, nearing 70 years of age, faces the prospect of spending the next 20-30 years in prison.
The most widely-held theory about Manafort’s double-cross of Mueller posits that he is angling for a presidential pardon. However, neither is a pardon assured nor would it give him blanket legal protection in all cases. Manafort was convicted on 8 of 18 counts in the Virginia case, and the 10 counts on which the jury was hung are still open to retrial. Also, his trial in the District of Columbia on separate charges – which had been set aside pending his cooperation with Mueller – can now proceed. Furthermore, a pardon cannot protect Manafort from state prosecution; and, it would invalidate his constitutional right to not answer questions (i.e. invoke the 5th Amendment) if called to testify before official investigations. Therefore, the pardon theory has holes.
Who is Manafort protecting and why would he risk so much to do so? Is he really that loyal to Donald Trump? Does he fear retribution from Russia? We don’t know, but one thing is clear. The Mueller investigation is focusing on an August 2016 meeting between Manafort, former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates (who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and is cooperating with Mueller), and Konstantin Kilimnik (who has ties to Russian intelligence agencies), in which a suspected quid pro quo arrangement was discussed to ease economic sanctions on Russia in exchange for aiding Trump’s presidential campaign and possibly other favors such as approving the Trump Tower project in Moscow.
The wrangling between Mueller’s and Manafort’s teams about the alleged lies provided a fascinating glimpse into the investigation, revealing both deeper Russian ties and more shady financial behavior from Manafort. We learned that Mueller is claiming:
That Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of his who the FBI thinks has “ties to Russian intelligence” (a Mueller prosecutor said this topic goes “very much to the heart of” their larger investigation)
That in 2017 and 2018, Manafort worked with Kilimnik to advance to promote a “Ukraine peace plan” (aimed, it seems, at settling the Russia-Ukraine conflict on terms favorable to Russia)
That $125,000 paid out from a pro-Trump Super PAC to a political media firm during the campaign was later used to help pay Manafort’s legal fees
That Manafort changed his story about a matter another Justice Department office is investigating — one that seems to involve the Trump campaign or administration
The Office of Special Counsel “has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant intentionally made multiple false statements to the FBI, the OSC, and the grand jury concerning matters that were material to the investigation: his interactions and communications with Kilimnik,” reads the ruling from Jackson. Jackson found the evidence lacking on another claim of lies involving Kilimnik.
Kilimnik is an increasingly important figure in the Russia probe. An Aug. 2, 2016, meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik goes to the “heart” of Mueller’s probe, according to Mueller’s team in a recently released court transcript. Previous court filings indicate Manafort shared polling data with Kilimnik and discussed a pro-Russian “peace deal” for Ukraine, where Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2013.
Importantly, Mueller’s team has assessed that Kilimnik, who attended a school that produced Russian intelligence agents, continued to have ties to Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign. It also says Kilimnik, who was born in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, is a Russian citizen.
In his book The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe reveals how he ordered the obstruction of justice probe of Trump after the president had fired James Comey for investigating possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign. McCabe undertook procedural measures which would ensure the continuance of the probe by limiting the effects of interference from the White House. He also reveals that the FBI did examine the use of the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, and that Rod Rosenstein did seriously contemplate wearing a wire to secretly record any private meetings he might have with the president. That the FBI would even consider such extraordinary moves highlights the great concern it had about the threat posed to the nation by the election of Donald Trump. See: McCabe says he ordered the obstruction of justice probe of President Trump
big House and Senate news
The House Judiciary Committee, headed by Jerry Nadler, believes that some of the testimony given to it by interim Attorney General Matthew Whitaker last week was untruthful concerning his private conversations with President Trump, and that they want him to testify again before the committee. See: House Judiciary chairman invites Whitaker to clarify testimony
WASHINGTON — The House voted on Wednesday to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a defiant and rare move to curtail presidential war powers that underscored anger with President Trump’s unflagging support for Saudi Arabia even after the killing of a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.
The vote, condemning a nearly four-year conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and inflicted a devastating famine, will pressure the Republican-controlled Senate to respond. Congress’s upper chamber in December passed a parallel resolution, 56 to 41, in a striking rebuke to the president and his administration’s defense of the kingdom. But that measure died with the last Congress after the House Republican leadership blocked a vote.
House Democrats are moving forward with gun control legislation. See: Congress moves to act on gun control amid partisan debate about background checks
Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, William Barr, has just been confirmed by the Senate. See: Senate votes to confirm Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general
Targets of the sanctions would include: Russian banks that support efforts to interfere in foreign elections; the country’s cyber sector; new sovereign debt; and individuals deemed to “facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
The bill also would impose several strict measures on Russia’s oil and gas sector, which makes up about 40 percent of the Russian government’s revenues, including sanctioning people who provide goods, services or financing to support the development of crude oil in the country.
Russian state-owned energy projects outside of Russia including investments in liquefied natural gas projects also would face sanctions.
DHS guts task force
Two teams of federal officials assembled to fight foreign election interference are being dramatically downsized, according to three current and former Department of Homeland Security officials. And now, those sources say they fear the department won’t prepare adequately for election threats in 2020.
“The clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm,” said a DHS official familiar with the teams. “We know Russia is going to be engaged. Other state actors have seen the success of Russia and realize the value of disinformation operations. So it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election.”