Manafort and Cohen Sentencing Documents Put Donald Trump in Spotlight

We are deep into the worst case scenarios. But as new sentencing memos for Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen make all too clear, the only remaining question is how bad does the actual worst case scenario get?

The potential innocent explanations for Donald Trump’s behavior over the last two years have been steadily stripped away, piece by piece. Special counsel Robert Mueller and investigative reporters have uncovered and assembled a picture of a presidential campaign and transition seemingly infected by unprecedented deceit and criminality, and in regular—almost obsequious—contact with America’s leading foreign adversary.

A year ago, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic outlined seven possible scenarios about Trump and Russia, arranged from most innocent to most guilty. Fifth on that list was “Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—And Trump Knew or Should Have Known,” escalating from there to #6 “Kompromat,” and topping out at the once unimaginable #7, “The President of the United States is a Russian Agent.”

After the latest disclosures, we’re steadily into Scenario #5, and can easily imagine #6.

The Cohen and Manafort court documents all provide new details, revelations, and hints of more to come. They’re a reminder, also, that Mueller’s investigation continues alongside an investigation by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that clearly alleges that Donald Trump participated in a felony, directing Cohen to violate campaign finance laws to cover up extramarital affairs.

Through his previous indictments against Russian military intelligence and the Russian Internet Research Agency, Mueller has laid out a criminal conspiracy and espionage campaign approved, according to US intelligence, by Vladimir Putin himself. More recently, Mueller has begun to hint at the long arm of that intelligence operation, and how it connects to the core of the Trump campaign itself.

Points of Contact

In fact, what’s remarkable about the once-unthinkable conclusions emerging from the special counsel’s investigation thus far is how, well, normal Russia’s intelligence operation appears to have been as it targeted Trump’s campaign and the 2016 presidential election. What intelligence professionals would call the assessment and recruitment phases appears to have unfolded with almost textbook precision, with few stumbling blocks and plenty of encouragement from the Trump side.

Mueller’s court filings, when coupled with other investigative reporting, paint a picture of how the Russian government, through various trusted-but-deniable intermediaries, conducted a series of “approaches” over the course of the spring of 2016 to determine, as Wittes says, whether “this is a guy you can do business with.”

The answer, from everyone in Trumpland—from Michael Cohen in January 2016, from George Papadopoulos in spring 2016, from Donald Trump, Jr. in June 2016, from Michael Flynn in December 2016—appears to have been an unequivocal “yes.”

Mueller and various reporting have shown that the lieutenants in Trump’s orbit rebuffed precisely zero of the known Russian overtures. In fact, quite the opposite. Each approach was met with enthusiasm, and a request for more.

Given every opportunity, most Trump associates—from Paul Manafort to Donald Trump, Jr. to George Papadopoulos—not only allegedly took every offered meeting, and returned every email or phone call, but appeared to take overt action to encourage further contact. Not once did any of them inform the FBI of the contacts.

For years, Russia has known compromising material on the president’s business empire and his primary lawyer.

And it seems possible there’s even more than has become public, beginning earlier than we might have known. As Mueller’s report says in Cohen’s case, “The defendant also provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign. For example, in or around November 2015, Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level.’ The defendant recalled that this person repeatedly proposed a meeting between Individual 1 [aka Donald Trump] and the President of Russia. The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a ‘phenomenal’ impact ‘not only in political but in a business dimension as well,’ referring to the Moscow Project, because there is no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia].’”

A footnote then clarifies that the reason Cohen didn’t follow up on the invitation was “because he was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connections to the Russian government.” In other words, the only reason Cohen didn’t pursue a Kremlin hook-up was because he didn’t need a Kremlin hook-up—he already had one.

Much of Friday’s filing by the special counsel about Paul Manafort, meanwhile, outlines at great length how he allegedly lied to Mueller’s office about both his contact and the content of those contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant whom US intelligence believes is tied to Russian intelligence.

Further sentences throughout Cohen’s document hint at much more to come—and that the Trump campaign, the Trump Organization, and even the White House likely face serious jeopardy in the continuing investigation. As Mueller writes, “Cohen provided the SCO with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign.”

What precisely those “discrete Russia-related matters” are, we don’t know—yet—but the known behavior of the Trump campaign associates and family members is damning.

Not least of all is Don Jr.’s now infamous email, responding to a suggestion of Russian assistance: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” which happens to be precisely when Russia dropped the stolen Clinton campaign emails, funneling them through WikiLeaks, another organization where there appears to have been no shortage of Trump-linked contact and encouragement by a team that included Roger Stone, Randy Credico, and Jerome Corsi’s conversations with their “friend in embassy,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

It was a pattern that continued right through the transition, as Flynn’s sentencing memo this week also reminds us: Trump’s team was all too happy to set up backchannels and mislead or even outright lie about their contacts with Russian officials. There’s still the largely unexplained request by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to establish secure backchannel communications with the Russian government, during the transition, that would be free of US eavesdropping.

Nearly everyone in the Trump orbit experienced massive amnesia about all of these contacts during the campaign, including Kushner and former attorney general Jeff Sessions himself, both of whom “revised” their recollections later to include meetings they held with Russian officials during the campaign and transition.

Leverage

The lies by Trump’s team would have provided Russia immense possible leverage. Michael Cohen’s calls and efforts through the spring of 2016, as he sought help for the Trump Tower Moscow project, were publicly denied until last week.

But the Russians knew Trump was lying.

For years, Russia has known compromising material on the president’s business empire and his primary lawyer.

Similarly, during the transition, Michael Flynn called to talk sanctions with Russia’s ambassadors—saying, in effect, don’t worry about Obama, be patient, we’ll undo it—and then covered up that conversation to federal investigators and the public.

But the Russians knew Flynn was lying.

For the first weeks of the Trump administration in January 2017, as then acting attorney general Sally Yates ran around the West Wing warning that Russia had compromising material on the president’s top national security advisor.

While Trump has tried to slough off the Trump Tower Moscow project since Cohen’s plea agreement as “very legal & very cool,” the easiest way to know that they don’t believe that themselves is that they lied about it. For years.

“The fact that [Trump] was lying to the American people about doing business in Russia and that the Kremlin knew he was lying gave the Kremlin a hold over him,” the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “One question we have now is, does the Kremlin still have a hold over him because of other lies that they know about?”

The most obvious scenario is the most likely scenario.

As Mueller put it in Friday’s Cohen court documents: “The defendant’s false statements obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues. The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1 [aka Donald Trump] well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and SCO investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. Similarly, it was material that Cohen, during the campaign, had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia.”

Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin phrased it slightly differently in the wake of Cohen’s plea agreement: “It would have been highly relevant to the public to learn that Trump was negotiating a business deal with Russia at the same time that he was proposing to change American policy toward that country.”

The SDNY sentencing document for Cohen, while combative and calling for a substantial prison sentence, does lay out some significant cooperation across what it says were seven sessions between Cohen and the special counsel’s office, saying, “His statements have been credible, and he has taken care not to overstate his knowledge or the role of others in the conduct under investigation.”

That means something specific in the way that federal prosecutors speak, and given how ethics constrain them to verify statements before allowing them to be made in court. It’s clear that Mueller’s team and the prosecutors in the Southern District aren’t just taking at face value the words of someone who has been pleading guilty to lying to investigators, banks, and tax authorities.

In fact, they likely have significant documentary evidence that Cohen’s claims are true and that, as prosecutors say, “Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1 [Donald Trump].”

Surreptitious recordings made by the Cohen and quoted in the document remind us that it’s possible that prosecutors even have recordings of Trump ordering his fixer to commit a felony.

Mueller doesn’t say precisely what he has, but the new documents are littered with breadcrumbs—mentions of travel records, testimonial evidence, emails, draft documents, recordings, and more. And he has both a very helpful Cohen and, to at least some extent, Manafort. While the former campaign chair wasn’t cooperative, he did, according to the new filing, testify twice to a grand jury in recent weeks, meaning that his testimony is being used as part of a criminal case targeting someone else.

Meanwhile, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Manafort document came in its final paragraphs, where Mueller’s team outlines that the former campaign chairman had been in contact with various administration officials well into 2018. “A review of documents recovered from a search of Manafort’s electronic documents demonstrates additional contacts with Administration officials,” the report says. What—and who—Mueller doesn’t hint at, but it’s surely part of the massive iceberg of evidence resting just below the surface of this case.

Put together all the clues, and Occam’s Razor comes to mind: The most obvious scenario is the most likely scenario. And the most likely scenario now is that there was no division between the apparent Trump-Russian collusion on business matters and in the election. The coincidences are piling up. The conversations are piling up.

And Mueller’s evidence is clearly piling up as well.


Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at garrett.graff@gmail.com.


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Device Lab Podcast: What the Tumblr Porn Ban Means for Users

The internet is for porn. Lately, though, platforms are becoming squeamish about hosting it. Facebook does not allow nudity. Neither does Instagram. Patreon place the kibosh on creators adult content. Now, microblogging site Tumblr—previously one of the more porn-friendly platforms, specifically for niche passions—announced a ban on pornographic content and nudity early in the day this week.

Therefore, where’s all of the porn now? We pose issue to WIRED senior author Emily Dreyfuss, who shines the spotlight on two internet sites that could fill the void—and, in a strange method, get back united states on claims associated with the very early internet.

Show notes: Read Paris Martineau’s story on Tumblr’s porn ban, and Emily Dreyfuss’s tale on where Tumblr’s porn exiles are headed next.

Guidelines this week: Emily advises My Brilliant Friend on HBO. Arielle suggests getting Tik Tok, in which all the cool teenagers go out. Mike made you a playlist of the greatest tracks of 2018.

Forward the device Lab hosts feedback on their individual Twitter feeds. Arielle Pardes can be obtained at @pardesoteric. Lauren Goode is @laurengoode. Michael Calore are present at @snackfight.

Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. Our theme song is by Solar Keys.

How exactly to Listen

You can always pay attention to this week’s podcast through the audio player with this page, however, if you want to subscribe 100% free to obtain every episode, right here’s just how:

If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, open the software called Podcasts, or just touch this link. You can also download an application like Overcast or Pocket Casts, and seek out device Lab. Plus in case you actually need it, right here’s the feed.

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GM’s Job Cuts Are Another Sign of a Future With Fewer Cars

If America’s biggest automaker’s crystal ball is working, the future of cars has way fewer cars.

That’s the thinking driving General Motors’ major internal restructuring announcement, which came Monday. The company plans to stop producing many compact or sedan models, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Volt, and Impala, the Buick LaCrosse, and the Cadillac CT6. It will close at least three assembly plants that build those cars, in Youngstown, Ohio, Oshawa, Ontario, and Detroit. And it will lay off as many as 14,000 men and women, including about 8,000 salaried workers, along the way.

For industry observers, GM’s announcement wasn’t shocking. Signs point to an auto downshift: After three years of impressive growth, new US vehicle sales have started to slide, with analysts doubtful that this year’s totals will improve upon 2016’s all-time high of 17.6 million. Sales are also down in China, the world’s largest car market and a region of major importance for more than a few automakers. Plus, GM has grappled with an ever-changing geopolitical landscape: It says the Trump administration’s tariffs on imported steel, imposed earlier this year, cost it $1 billion.

Note, though, that GM is scaling back on cars—not all passenger vehicles. Trucks and SUVs continue to dominate the American vehicle landscape, accounting for an estimated two-thirds of the country’s sales last year. With gas prices low, gas mileage competitive, and drives smooth, American car buyers see little reason to skip a larger, more flexible vehicle. Indeed, GM’s fellows in the Big 3 have also scaled back on car production. Ford announced in April that it would almost completely stop building cars in North America, and invest more money in pickups and SUVs. Fiat Chrysler began to phase out sedans back in 2016. (GM officials have indicated that some laid off car plant workers may find work in the the company’s truck factories, which must run overtime to keep up with demand.)

“This was a comprehensive, one-fell-swoop approach,” says Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst and the executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “We’ve seen a lot of these themes from a lot of different automakers in the past 12 months. GM laid it all out in one document.”

So if cars aren’t the future of American cars, at least according to GM, what is? It’ll keep selling pickups and SUVs, that’s for sure. But GM’s planning goes beyond what consumers are into these days.

“They know in the future it’s not going to be about who builds the best car or best SUV,” says Brauer. “It’s going to be about who leverages technology most efficiently.”

So, while it plans to cut annual capital spending to $7 billion by 2020, from an average $8.5 billion between 2017 and 2019, GM is spending big to develop electric and autonomous vehicles. The company said last fall that it would launch 20 new battery electric models in North America by 2023, and at least 10 in China by 2020. Brauer notes that GM’s decision to discontinue the battery electric Volt may be more about the car’s form than its drivetrain. The automaker showed off a crossover EV, the Buick Velite 6, at the Shanghai Auto Show in April, and said it plans to start selling the vehicle in China next year. It could come to the US soon after.

Meanwhile, Cruise, the GM self-driving unit acquired in 2016, said earlier this month that it would open a new office in Seattle. In the spring, CEO Kyle Vogt said the company was expanding its headcount by 40 percent each quarter. A $2.25 billion investment from the Softbank Vision Fund, announced in May, has also spurred (and funded) development there.

Once their tech is ready for deployment—GM promises a commercial service will launch somewhere come 2019—all sorts of tricky questions remain. The arrival of more electric and connected cars only make things more complex. Will the automaker figure out how to use the streams of data that flow from a connected car to improve customer experience, or even sell people things? Will it crack the best business model for driverless cars, once they can operate in a city or seven? Will it seed enough infrastructure to make electric cars widely available? Answer those questions, and you’ll know whether the the automaker will survive into the decades to come.

But getting to the future requires selling vehicles now. And GM seems to believe that will American want big ones, not small ones, for the next decade or so. The present is clear; the distant future, where robo-taxis roam the streets, is, too. It’s the tricky middle part that GM will have to finesse.


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Julian Assange Charges, Japan’s Top Cybersecurity Official, and More Security News This Week

The US refused to join a new global cybersecurity agreement this week—maybe because it was created by French president Emmanuel Macron, with whom President Trump isn’t on great terms with.

On the same day, internet traffic that was supposed to route through Google’s cloud servers instead went haywire, traveling through unplanned servers based in the likes of Russia and China. Hack? No, as Lily Hay Newman explains, though the cause was still worrisome.

We also brought you the lowdown on how Darpa is preparing a Hail Mary plan to restart an electric grid in the case of a major infrastructure hack. We showed you how to get rid of old electronics without leaving your personal data on them. We explained what a bot really even is. And, with Mozilla’s help, we explained how to shop for cyber-secure toys for the holidays.

Cryptographer Bruce Schneier explained why surveillance kills freedom and experimentation. And Garrett Graff laid out why the Mueller investigation is probably going to be just fine—despite Trump firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with a person who called the investigation a witch hunt.

And there’s more! As always, we’ve rounded up all the news we didn’t break or cover in depth this week. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

The Cybersecurity Minister Who’s Never Used a Computer

The most cybersecure devices are the ones that aren’t connected to the internet at all. Japan’s minister of cybersecurity Yoshitaka Sakurada appears to have taken that advice a little far, admitting in front of Japanese parliament this week that he has actually never used a computer. At all. The nation of Japan was understandably aghast. When asked whether nuclear power plants in the country allowed USB drives to be used on their computers, Sakurada admitted he didn’t know what a USB drive was. He told parliament if they need to have better answers they should bring in an expert.

Though the story is funny in a “this is fine” meme kind of way, it’s actually terrifying, and exemplifies a growing trend of nonexperts in governing positions—and not just in Japan. American lawmakers are increasingly without expertise in the areas they’re assigned to oversee. After the midterms, it made headlines that a lawmaker with an actual science background would be leading the House science committee. It was news because it was such a rarity. This isn’t really fine, is it?

Alexa May Be a Witness to Another Murder

It happened in 2016. And now it’s happened again. A judge in New Hampshire has said that Amazon’s Alexa may have heard the stabbing murder of two women. The judge ruled this week that Amazon should hand over the records to prosecutors in the case against the man accused. Amazon said it will only deliver the recordings with a binding legal order, which it appeared to deny the ruling constituted.

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Has Been Charged With… Something

In an apparent error, a US assistant attorney revealed in an unrelated court filing that Julian Assange has been charged “under seal” in the US. That means no details of the charge, or even the charge itself, are meant to be known by the public. The unrelated filing stated: “Due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” It went on to indicate the US plans to arrest Assange, who is reportedly wearing out his welcome at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’s been hiding for the past six years. A spokesman for the court told The Washington Post, “The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing.” The Post suggests the filing might relate to the Mueller probe, which has been investigating the role Wikileaks played in Russia’s misinformation attack on the US presidential election in 2016.

The Government’s Requesting More and More Data from Facebook

Facebook says that US government requests for user data have gone up by 30 percent year over year. Most of these were court-ordered search warrants, which the company prevented from alerting users about. The figures were released in its latest transparency report, which came out a day after The New York Times bombshell investigation into the company’s mishandling of Russian misinformation on the platform during the presidential election. Facebook’s transparency report also reveals that between 2014 and 2017, Facebook reports the US government served it with 13 national security letters, the secret subpoenas the FBI issues to companies for data without any judicial oversight, and about which companies are often prevented from discussing publicly. Facebook disclosed the information after the government lifted the gag orders on these specific NSLs earlier this year, according to Facebook’s deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby.

Google Tweeted Out a Bitcoin Scam

As if its traffic being rerouted erroneously through Russia and China wasn’t bad enough, Google’s official G Suite Twitter account was also hacked this week. In a since-deleted tweet, the account promoted a bitcoin scam to its more than 800,000 followers. The Next Web reports the hack was part of a string Bitcoin related scams going around. Earlier that same day Target’s Twitter account had done the same thing.

New Cloudflare App Makes Public Mobile Browsing Safer

In good news, internet security company Cloudflare released a mobile version of its 1.1.1.1 public DNS resolver, which works to protect your browsing privacy while on a public internet connection by hiding your IP address. Available for iOS and Android devices, the app is free and early reviews suggest it’s fast.


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Photos: New Yorkers Wait ‘on Line’ to Vote in Midterms

For some in New York City, voting in yesterday’s midterm elections was no easy feat. Big lines, rain, an unusually long ballot—from Chelsea to Park Slope, the city’s residents faced more than the usual hurdles in placing their votes.

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But New Yorkers, like many Americans across the country who hit the polls yesterday, are resilient. They stood in lines, dealt with ballot-scanning machine issues, and patiently waited to cast their votes, even as things ground to a halt in some neighborhoods. Natan Dvir caught that diligence in-person. The photographer spent his day yesterday on the Upper West Side capturing images of different polling stations for his series On Line, which “explores the cultural phenomena of standing in line.”

The resulting photographs, like those above, encapsulate New Yorkers’ persistence in the face of the elements and exhibit the power present in the mundane act of waiting to cast their ballots. “It was amazing to see how many people came to vote in spite of the bad weather,” Dvir says. “The feeling was people did come to make a point. People made it their business to come stand in line until they actually casted their vote.”

The photographer’s images, in turn, show the beauty in those moments, the stillness amongst an otherwise tense atmosphere. Dvir arranges his images as wide tableau, signaling to the viewer the spectrum of personal narratives united by a common cause: American democracy.


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