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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.