Week 47: Mount Trump Fumes but Doesn’t Blow

- April 14, 2018

Santiago Nasar—the protagonist of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold—lives out his final day unaware that he has been marked for death by vengeance-seeking twin brothers. Everybody in town knows the murder is imminent because the brothers talk endlessly about killing Nasar, sharpening their knives all the while. Yet nobody stops the attack, either because they dismiss the brothers as drunken blowhards or because they get distracted and forget to pass on the information or because they secretly hope the brothers succeed. It’s a communal collapse that ends with an unjustly accused man stabbed to death on his doorstep, holding his guts in his hands.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein recently entered a Márquezian zone of inevitability of their own. If we can believe the anonymous sources blabbing to the press, President Donald Trump rages almost daily about taking the duo out, screaming “WITCH HUNT” on his Twitter feed. But nobody seems willing—or able—to derail his plan. Bills designed to prevent Trump from firing Mueller have been introduced in both chambers of Congress, but they stand a zero chance of passing. Mueller and Rosenstein’s necks have been resting under Trump’s twin guillotines so long it’s easier to think of them as gone. In newsrooms across Washington, the journalists who haven’t composed obits for the pair in their heads have already published stories asking what happens next if Mueller gets fired because they’re all but convinced it’s going to happen. Depending on the day of the week, Attorney General Jeff Session is also on Trump’s hit list.

If Trump is so keen on dismissing these characters, why hasn’t he? As you recall, Trump angrily called for Mueller’s firing inside the White House in both December and June of 2017. He asked Sessions to resign in March 2017 and tried to push him out in July of that year, too, inspiring Mueller to investigate that later incident as potential obstruction of justice.

What deters Trump from some of these sackings, the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand explains, is the belief inside the White House that the acts might add to the obstruction of justice charges we expect to be filed against the president. Political reasons, it seems, have prevented Trump from firing Sessions: If he forced Sessions out, Capitol Hill might crack open and send a pyroclastic flow down Pennsylvania Avenue to bury the White House. Worse yet, the Senate might refuse to confirm his Sessions replacement, leaving him with less control of the Justice Department. CNN’s Joan Biskupic notes that a few Republicans have cautioned Trump about firing Mueller unless he wants to see articles of impeachment. Besides, Biskupic reports, FBI Director Wray would continue the Russia investigation—the FBI investigation of Russian meddling predated the Mueller appointment—and a new special counsel would be appointed.

Logically, Trump shouldn’t fire anybody. Instead, he should ride out the storm. But the chances of Mr. Unpredictable doing the logical? We’re just one tantrum away from political and legal—even constitutional—upheaval. Make that additional political and legal upheaval. This week an ongoing corruption investigation of Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen broke into view as the FBI raided Cohen’s office and homes to collect documents, computer files and audio recordings. Earlier, the FBI obtained Cohen emails secretly.

The Cohen matter grew out of the Mueller investigation and has been handed off to the Manhattan U.S. attorney for prosecution. But that hasn’t prevented the president from detonating—he called the lawfully served search warrants a break in, a “disgraceful situation” and “an attack on our country.”

The New York Times reports that the FBI sought information about Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who is alleged to have had a one-night-stand with Trump and received $130,000 payment from Cohen for her silence. The agents also sought information on Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump and got a payout of $150,000 from the parent company of the National Enquirer.

That Trump’s zipper problem might end up wrecking his presidency before the Russia stuff ruins him is a real possibility. According to the New York Times, Trump’s advisers believe the Cohen investigation presents a greater danger to his presidency than the Russia investigation. Cohen apparently used a home equity credit line to score the Stormy Daniels hush money. If he lied in his application, he could face 30 years in jail, as Politico reports. Moreover, Cohen’s payments to Daniels could be prosecuted as an unreported and excessive in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign. If Trump directed Cohen to make those payments, he might have violated campaign finance law, too.

According to CNN, Cohen recorded calls with Keith Davidson, who represented both Daniels and McDougal at the time. (Davidson says it was without his knowledge.) The recordings could contain evidence that would incriminate Cohen and even implicate Trump.

If prosecutor have the goods on Cohen, might he strike a deal with Mueller and join the other “cooperators“—Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, Alex van der Zwaan and Richard Pinedo? As Trump’s fixer and attack dog, Cohen knows everything about his boss. Imagine the tantrum that would follow Cohen’s flipping.

As the week came to a close, McClatchy reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon dropped another bomb on Cohen. According to the Steele Dossier, Cohen traveled to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign to strategize “with a powerful Kremlin figure about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.”

Cohen has been adamant about the allegations, saying that he’s never been to Prague or colluded, showing BuzzFeed his passport as evidence that it had never been stamped. Earlier this year, he filed a defamation suit against Fusion GPS, which commissioned the dossier, and against BuzzFeed, which first published it. But according to McClatchy, Mueller has evidence Cohen made a secret trip to the city in the late summer of 2016, entering via Germany, which means he wouldn’t have had to show a passport. “If Cohen met with Russians and hackers in Prague as described in the dossier, it would provide perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Russians and Trump campaign aides were collaborating,” McClatchy reports.

At the end of Marquez’ brief saga, the townspeople are racked with guilt and the family of the killers flees in disgrace. But Nasar, of course, is still dead. If Trump knifes Mueller, as we all expect, the only difference is that even if Mueller is dispatched, the investigation will survive. But Trump may well be driven from this town in shame.

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Send your home equity loan applications to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts spend summer in Prague where they conspire with both my Twitter feed and my RSS feed, which is a double agent.


 

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