By Michael Goodwin | New York Post
As I sat a few feet from President Trump while he ripped special counsel Robert Mueller and warned Democrats he is preparing a devastating counterpunch, the phrase “The Gathering Storm” came to mind. That’s the title of Volume I of Winston Churchill’s masterful history of World War II.
It also describes the president’s mood and the vicious game of blood sport playing out in Washington. While our nation’s political battles are hardly as dramatic as the fight with Nazi Germany and Japan, a storm is gathering in America and 2019 is shaping up as an extremely turbulent year.
Trump is under siege and girding for a political, legal and public-relations war. Though the conflict began the day he took office, the last two years have been skirmishes compared to the climactic battles ahead.
That view was strengthened by the Oval Office interview last week where I, along with Post reporters Nikki Schwab and Marisa Schultz, spent nearly 40 minutes with the president and several aides.
Trump, sitting behind the grand Resolute Desk, made from the timbers of a 19th century British sailing ship, was genial and gracious. No questions were taboo, and he was in a sunny mood.
Yet his answers exposed a furious frustration over the Mueller probe and Dem plans to use control of the House to swamp his administration with subpoenas and investigations.
“Mueller would like it to go for the rest of his life,” Trump said when asked how he saw the probe ending. “It’s a witch hunt at the highest level, it’s McCarthyism.”
After he mentioned Paul Manafort, I asked whether a pardon for his former campaign manager was possible. “It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table,” Trump said. “Why would I take it off the table?”
That answer quickly ricocheted around Washington and sharpened the battle lines, with Dems accusing the president of sending a signal to Manafort that he would be protected in exchange for loyalty.
Some 24 hours later, the drums of war were beating even louder as Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a possible Trump building project in Moscow.
The president, in public comments, offered a two-part response, saying Cohen was “weak” and looking to get reduced jail time. He also said that, even if the negotiations ran longer in 2016 than Cohen initially laimed, it didn’t matter because Trump was still a private citizen legally running his business.
Like everything else involving Mueller, the Cohen plea offers lots of smoke, but no sign of fire. It might be a piece of a larger puzzle, but more than two years after the FBI probe began, a clear picture remains maddeningly elusive.
And yet the probe, and the left’s exploitation of it, continue to inflict casualties. The most recent one is that any hopes that divided government might be productive are vanishing.
The day after the midterms, Trump tried to paint a rosy picture of the Dem majority in the House, saying he was eager to work with likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi and would sign key legislation even if most Republicans opposed it.
Now his message is far more stick than carrot. As he said in our interview, the new Dem leaders would be unleashing the furies from hell if they engage in “presidential harassment.”
“I will hit them so hard, they’ve never seen a hit like that,” he said, referring to his power to release secret documents, some of which, he hinted, will be deeply embarrassing to Barack Obama’s administration.
“If they want to play tough, I will do it,” he said. “And they will see how devastating those pages are.”
I believe the president should release any such documents now, regardless of their partisan impact. Excessive secrecy serves only to hide official wrongdoing and the lack of transparency fuels public mistrust.
In theory, Trump agrees. But he is fixated on the war, and understandably so because he is fighting for the survival of his presidency.
His theory on the origins of the war is familiar — and credible: The allegations of Russian collusion were a tissue of lies supported only by the discredited dossier secretly financed by Hillary Clinton. Those lies were given a sheen of credibility by a corrupted FBI investigation that lives on through Mueller.
“I’m sure [fired FBI Director James] Comey had someone above because you know there’s no question that [then CIA-boss] John Brennan was involved,” Trump said. “There’s no question that all of these people you see on television, all of these lightweights were involved, and it’s hard to believe that the president wasn’t involved.
“And the only reason they were doing it was just in case I won.”
As for the dossier, Trump asks: “So why isn’t Mueller looking at that? Russians were paid for the phony dossier. Now it’s been discredited, it’s total baloney, but a lot of money was passed.”
We had stayed long past our allotted time, and as we left, aides handed us six pages listing the administration’s accomplishments. They include the historic low unemployment among Latinos and black Americans, rising wages and the fact that 4.4 million people no longer need food stamps.
Consumer and business confidence are soaring and America is now the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. Kim Jong-un is sending flattering letters to Trump instead of firing off missiles, and a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada keeps faith with the vow to fix NAFTA.
Those are some of the highlights of a remarkable two years, but on most days, they are eclipsed by the political war. And the worst is yet to come.
Robert Mueller’s Plan
By Andrew C. McCarthy | National Review
By Andrew C. McCarthy | National Review
Special Counsel Mueller is building a report, not a case.
Easier to destroy Satan’s conscience, I thought. Cohen would have to have some credibility before it could be destroyed, and how much could reside in a self-described “fixer” who openly compared himself to Tom Hagen, the lawyer-gangster in The Godfather? (I’ll stipulate that he has a law degree, but Cohen has always struck me as the Fredo of Trump World.)
Nevertheless, the flaw in my friend’s question was not the assumption that Cohen had some smidgeon of value as a witness until it was extirpated by his plea of guilty to lying to Congress (after he had already, in August, pled guilty lying to a financial institution, among other fraudulence). The real flaw was the assumption that Special Counsel Mueller is lining up witnesses and building a criminal case, as prosecutors do.
He is not.
No prosecutor builds a case the way Mueller is going about it. What prosecutor says, “Here’s our witness line-up: Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Alex van der Zwaan, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen. And what is it that they have in common, ladies and gentlemen of the jury? Bingo! They’re all convicted liars.”?
For a prosecutor, like any trial lawyer, what the jury thinks is at least as important as what the law says. If the most memorable thing the jury takes into the deliberation room is that no one should believe a word your witnesses say, you are not going to convict the lowliest grifter, much less the president of the United States of America.
As a prosecutor, you build a case by having your cooperating accomplice witnesses plead guilty to the big scheme you are trying to pin on the main culprit. After all, what makes these witnesses accomplices, literally, is that they were participants in the main culprit’s crime. That’s the scheme you’re trying to prove. So, on guilty-plea day, the cooperator comes into court and admits guilt to the same conspiracy on which you are trying to nail the lead defendant.
That gets you 90 percent of the way home. “Yes, I am guilty of the conspiracy charged in Count One. I was a member of the drug cartel. A was the boss. B and C were the distributors. D organized the couriers and kept an arsenal to protect the drugs and the money, and to make sure we got paid. My job was to keep the books and supervise the money-laundering operation.”
This kind of guilty plea signals to the world, including to all the other suspects, that the accomplice is ready to testify that the criminal scheme existed — it is not a figment of the prosecutor’s fevered imagination. The accomplice is ready to describe what he did and what everybody else did. Virtually every appellate opinion reviewing conspiracy convictions notes the principle that once a conspiracy is shown to exist, only slight evidence is needed to tie a conspirator to it.
In short, you build a case by first establishing the foundational criminal offense. Juries do not convict people because they like or trust the prosecution’s witnesses. They convict because they are persuaded that justice demands redress for a real crime.
Note that word: crime. There are many wrongs that are not crimes, activities that are immoral, mendacious, unseemly. If we are talking about cosmic justice, all these wrongs should be made right. But prosecutors do not operate in a cosmic-justice system. They are in the criminal-justice system. The only wrongs they are authorized to address — the only wrongs it is appropriate for them to address — are crimes.
This is why, from the beginning of the Trump-Russia investigation, and certainly since Mueller’s appointment on May 17, 2017, we have stressed that the probe is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. The idea was not to dizzy you with Justice Department esoterica. The point is that we don’t want prosecutors involved until it has been established that a crime was probably committed, warranting use of their awesome, intimidating investigative powers. Our main interest is in the crime we authorize prosecutors to investigate; we are not looking to have prosecutors manufacture crimes through the process of investigating — even if we agree that people should not be permitted to lie to investigators with impunity.
With respect to the president and “collusion,” Mueller does not have a crime he is investigating. He is investigating in hopes of finding a crime, which is a day-and-night different thing.
The lack of a crime means the “accomplices” are not really accomplices. To take a couple of stark examples, collusion pours off every page of the narrative statements Mueller submitted to the courts in the cases of Papadopoulos and Cohen. They consult with Russian operatives, plan meetings for themselves and Trump with Russian officials, and — in Papadopoulos’s case — discuss the possibility of obtaining campaign dirt against Hillary Clinton from Russians. Yet, though these activities are the laser focus of his investigation, Mueller did not charge them as crimes because they are not crimes. Papadopoulos, Cohen, and the rest got jammed up, not for what they did, but for lying about what they did.
That brings us to the “where there’s smoke, there must be fire” talking-point Mueller fans have been trying out: If all these people are lying to cover something up, that something must involve some egregious criminality. That’s ridiculous. We know from our own daily lives that crimes account for only a very small percentage of the things people lie about. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, Democrats insisted that prosecutors should leave Bill Clinton alone because everybody lies about sex. People lie about things that they are embarrassed or ashamed about.
Politics is a seamy business. Pols want to think of themselves as public servants, but they spend lots of time with their hands out, either pleading for money or collecting information that might compromise an opponent. Successful politics requires horse-trading and compromise, so pols are forever explaining how they could actually be against something they voted for. A lot of this is embarrassing stuff. Consequently, when people in and around politics get caught practicing politics, they often lie about what they’ve done.
Politics is not a crime, of course. Consequently, if you criminalize politics — if you turn a prosecutor loose to investigate political campaign activities — you are apt to find unsavory conduct that is not criminal but that some people will lie about.
Mueller is turning such lies into guilty pleas, for three reasons.
First, he is not going to indict the president, which would precipitate a trial at some point. The convicted liars are not going to be jury-trial witnesses, so Mueller is not concerned about their lack of credibility. The report will detail disturbing — and thus politically damaging — connections between Trump associates and Kremlin cronies. But there will be no collusion crime, and thus no charges and no need for witnesses.
Second, with the media as his biggest cheerleader (other than Jeff Flake), the false-statements pleas create the illusion of a collusion crime, and thus appear to vindicate Mueller’s sprawling investigation. As I’ve previously explained, the game works this way: The media reports that Mueller is investigating Trump–Russia collusion and that dozens of people have been charged or convicted; but the media omits that no one has been charged, much less convicted, of any crime involving collusion between Trump and Russia. The great mass of people who do not follow the news closely come away thinking a Trump–Russia collusion crime is an established fact; by now, Mueller must be tightening the noose around Trump because he’s already rolled up a bunch of the apparent accomplices.
Third, defendants convicted of making false statements are very useful because Mueller is writing a report, not preparing for a jury trial. Convicted liars never get cross-examined in a report. Nor do they give the bumpy, inconsistent testimony you hear in a courtroom. Instead, their version of events is outlined by a skilled prosecutor, who writes well and knows how to make their stories sing in perfect harmony. They will sound far better in the report than they would on the witness stand. We’ve already gotten a taste of this in the offense narratives Mueller has incorporated in each guilty plea. Read the criminal information in Cohen’s case and ask yourself whether Mr. Fixer could have recited matters with such clarity.
Here, moreover, there is a bonus for the special prosecutor. He knows that the legitimacy of his investigation is under attack, allegedly driven by politics rather than evidence of crime. But the convictions he has amassed, even if they are only for false statements or are otherwise unrelated to the Trump-Russia rationale for the investigation, prove that many people Trump brought into his campaign were corruptible and of low character. Mueller, the career Justice Department and FBI man, will deftly use this fact to argue that suspicions about these people, and hence the investigation, were fully justified even if — thankfully — there was no prosecutable Trump–Russia conspiracy.
Trump’s Republican and conservative critics will cheer, figuring the president and his rogues’ gallery had it coming. Democrats will cheer, knowing this would never happen to Democrats.
Andrew C. McCarthy — Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review. @AndrewCMcCarthy