THE MORNING PLUM:
Another shoe just dropped in the Russia investigation. And it may leave a large footprint.
“Manafort associate had Russian intelligence ties during 2016 campaign, prosecutors say,” reads The Post’s headline this morning. The story reports:
The FBI has found that a business associate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, including during the 2016 campaign when Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, were in touch with the associate, according to new court filings.
The documents, filed late Tuesday by prosecutors for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, also allege that Gates had said he knew the associate was a former officer with the Russian military intelligence service.
Gates, of course, was Donald Trump’s deputy campaign manager, and he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with the Mueller probe. The associate is unnamed in the filing, but The Post notes the description matches Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian manager of Manafort’s lobbying office in Kiev.
As the filing puts it, Gates was “directly communicating in September and October 2016” with that associate, who had “ties to a Russian intelligence service … in 2016.” And Gates knew of those ties, the filing also says, noting that another figure involved in those conversations has already testified to the special counsel’s office that “Gates told him” the person was a “former Russian intelligence officer.”
That means Mueller is now alleging that Trump’s deputy campaign manager knew in the fall of 2016 that his and Manafort’s business associate had ties to Russian intelligence. What’s more, The Post adds, based on previous reporting, that Manafort has said he and the associate discussed in August 2016 the “hacking of Democratic National Committee emails.” One month previously, WikiLeaks — widely believed to be a Russian cut-out operation — had released stolen DNC emails.
First, let’s note the reasons for caution about this story. As Paul Rosenzweig, who was special counsel during Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, pointed out to me today, we don’t yet know how deep this associate’s “ties” to Russian intelligence remained at that point. And we don’t know what the discussions about the stolen emails really amounted to. It’s perfectly possible they were merely talking about something that was in the news. A Manafort spokesman has claimed this to be the case, adding that eventually it will be shown that no “conspiracy” was being discussed.
But Rosenzweig also said that these new revelations do raise some important possibilities. First, they suggest that Manafort — who was Trump’s campaign chair deep into August 2016 — likely knew his associate had connections to Russian intelligence, since if Gates knew, Manafort also probably knew. “At a minimum that says something about his willingness to work with people who have ties to Russian intelligence agencies,” Rosenzweig said. “That raises the question of whether Manafort was a conduit of Russian influence on the campaign,” though he may have been an “unwitting dupe” in this regard.
Second, and perhaps more important, Mueller may have put this information in the filing in part to increase the pressure on Manafort. Mueller’s investigators are “showing Manafort some of their cards as a way to increase the pressure on him to cooperate,” Rosenzweig says.
Indeed, Politico recently reported that people around Trump are deeply worried about what Gates can tell Mueller, because that might end up inducing Manafort to conclude that his legal jeopardy is so severe that he should flip. Gates can perhaps tell Mueller what Manafort knew at the time about the associate’s ties to Russian intelligence.
Finally, putting this information in the filing might end up protecting the Mueller probe itself. “Mueller’s biggest strategic risk is being fired,” Rosenzweig said. “The more they put Russia into the equation, the harder it is for Trump to fire him.”
As we have already seen, Trump has now begun to directly attack the Mueller investigation, and he has gotten rid of lawyers such as John Dowd who are advising caution. The new Mueller filing, however, could make it that much harder politically for Trump to try to shut down or hamstring the probe. And if that’s what this latest shoe dropping accomplishes, that itself will leave a pretty big footprint.
* WHY LAWYERS ARE SAYING ‘NO THANKS’ TO TRUMP: CNN reports on all the top lawyers who have declined to represent Trump, and explains their thinking:
Well-known Washington lawyers cited several reasons for declining the President in recent weeks, according to multiple sources familiar with their decisions. Among them, Trump appears to be a difficult client and has rebuked some of his lawyers’ advice. He’s perceived as so politically unpopular he may damage reputations rather than boost them. Lawyers at large firms fear backlash from their corporate clients if they were to represent the President.
CNN adds that no previous president has struggled this hard to build a legal team for himself. Trump continues to outshine his predecessors!
* WHITE HOUSE DISSEMBLES ABOUT CENSUS: In defending adding a citizenship question to the census, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the question has been in every census since 1965 with the exception of 2010. The New York Times corrects the record:
In fact, various citizenship questions have appeared in many censuses since 1850, especially during periods of high immigration. But it was dropped from the 1960 general census (there was no census in 1965) and relegated in 1970 to a longer list of questions that were asked of a small minority of residents. After 2000, the question was asked only on the American Community Survey, a separate voluntary poll of a fraction of the population that is conducted more frequently than the census.
This White House lie appears designed to evade the main criticism, which is that the impact of the question has not properly been studied and would likely depress responses.
* SCARY!!! TRUMP OFFICIAL ‘WARNS’ RUSSIA: The Times reports that Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen recently delivered a stern, private warning against interfering in our election to a group of diplomats, including — wait for it — the Russian ambassador:
“To those who would try to attack our democracy, to affect our elections, to affect the elections of other countries, to undermine national sovereignty, I have a word of warning: Don’t,” Ms. Nielsen told an estimated 80 foreign envoys and other officials during a speech last week, according to a person in attendance. …. Ms. Nielsen told the dignitaries … that election tampering would be detected and meddling states would suffer consequences.
Has anyone told President Trump about this? If so, he might want to organize a response to the threat.
* STORMY DANIELS’S LAWYER WANTS TO DEPOSE TRUMP: Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, is seeking to depose Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen as part of Daniels’s lawsuit to get out of the nondisclosure agreement about the alleged affair:
In documents filed early Wednesday morning, Michael Avenatti said he was seeking to depose Trump and Cohen for no more than two hours each to find out whether Trump was aware of the agreement and whether he consented to it. … Avenatti said he “intends to prove that the Hush Agreement did not have a lawful object or purpose.”
It’s notable that Trump has still not tweeted boo about this since Daniels’s Sunday interview.
* GOP TO PUSH SHAM ‘BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT’: Politico’s Playbook reports:
House Republicans will take up a balanced-budget amendment when they return from recess, several sources tell us. … it would be helpful if GOP lawmakers could go home and be able to say they voted to support balancing the federal budget, even though they voted boosted discretionary spending by a ton, and have not touched entitlement spending, which, they have said for years, is the driver of U.S. budget deficits.
Will Republicans — who just passed a huge tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and will blow up the deficit — giggle as they do this?
* COURT HEARS GERRYMANDERING CASE: Today the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a gerrymander by Democrats in Maryland, after having heard a challenge to a GOP map in Wisconsin. Here’s what it likely means:
“It’s clear that the Supreme Court wants to say something about partisan gerrymandering, and we don’t quite know what that is yet,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. But he said that if the court had decided it had no role in policing partisan gerrymanders, as some states have suggested, the court did not need to take a second case to say that.
So the court may well put some kind of limit on gerrymandering, and depending what that is, it could have a big impact on national and state politics in the next decade.
* AND TRUMP OFTEN GETS ‘AGITATED’ BY HIS FANTASIES: Axios runs through numerous false things that Trump has recently said, publicly and privately, and comments:
Trump often gets agitated — and stirred to action — by random things he hears on TV or from shoot-the-bull conversations with friends. … It drives staff nuts because they are responding to things that are either inaccurate, highly distorted or flat-out don’t exist.
As this blog keeps telling you, the one in the bubble is Trump. It’s a good thing that all the “adults in the room” are leaving the bubble, one by one.