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Don McGahn Is Not the Most Critical Witness on Impeachment

In the last several days, Jerry Nadler has stated more and more clearly that his committee is conducting an inquiry on whether to file articles of impeachment. Six months after gaining the majority, this feels like a slow walk perhaps intended to time any impeachment vote based on how it will impact the election.

In its press release and complaint seeking to enforce its subpoena against Don McGahn last week, the House Judiciary Committee made an alarming claim: that Don McGahn was the most important witness in its consideration of whether to file for impeachment.

McGahn is the Judiciary Committee’s most important fact witness in its consideration of whether to recommend articles of impeachment and its related investigation of misconduct by the President, including acts of obstruction of justice described in the Special Counsel’s Report.

That claim suggests that the House Judiciary Committee has a very limited conceptualization of its own inquiry and perhaps an overestimation of how good a witness McGahn will be.

McGahn’s probably not as credible as HJC Dems think

I say the latter for two reasons. First, in the early days of the Russian investigation, McGahn overstepped the role of a White House Counsel. For example, even after his office recognized they could not talk to Jeff Sessions about the Russian investigation or risk obstruction, McGahn followed Trump’s orders to pressure Dana Boente on the investigation.

At the President’s urging, McGahn contacted Boente several times on March 21, 2017, to seek Boente’s assistance in having Corney or the Department of Justice correct the misperception that the President was under investigation.326

Curiously, McGahn and Boente’s versions of what happened are among the most divergent in the entire Mueller Report, which might suggest McGahn was less than forthright in testimony that, per footnotes, came in one of his earlier interviews.

Plus, as the Mueller Report acknowledges, the NYT story that triggered one of the key events in the report — where Trump asked McGahn to publicly rebut a claim that he had asked McGahn to fire Mueller, which led him to threaten to resign — was inaccurate in its claim that McGahn had functionally threatened to resign (which was clear in real time). 

On January 26, 2018, the President’s personal counsel called McGahn ‘s attorney and said that the President wanted McGahn to put out a statement denying that he had been asked to fire the Special Counsel and that he had threatened to quit in protest.784 McGahn’s attorney spoke with McGahn about that request and then called the President’s personal counsel to relay that McGahn would not make a statement.785 McGahn ‘s attorney informed the President’s personal counsel that the Times story was accurate in reporting that the President wanted the Special Counsel removed.786 Accordingly, McGahn’s attorney said, although the article was inaccurate in some other respects, McGahn could not comply with the President’s request to dispute the story.787

Put McGahn under oath, and Republicans will ask if he was a source for that story, and if he was, why he oversold what he did. At the very least they’ll beat him up for letting the “#FakeNews NYT” spread lies.

There are far better (tactically and Constitutionally) reasons to impeach

More troubling still, asserting that McGahn is the most important witness — and stating that he’d be a witness in “criminal obstruction” — you prioritize that cause for impeachment over others, causes that might elicit some Republican support or at the very least mobilize the Democratic base.

To my mind, the best cause for impeachment — in terms of cornering Republicans and mobilizing the Democratic base — pertains to Trump’s repurposing of otherwise allocated funding for his Wall. This was an issue about which Republicans themselves had problems. It highlights Trump’s impotence to deliver on his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for his wall. It goes to issues of efficacy on national security issues. And it highlights how Trump has abused authority — authority which goes to the core of separation of powers — to facilitate his attacks on Latino immigrants. Plus, depending on when impeachment was triggered, having focused on the power of the purse would provide a tool to rein Trump in if he survived the election.

Democrats should also focus on Trump’s abuse of the Vacancy Reform Act in his appointments to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Board, DOJ, DOD, and ODNI. Violating the spirit of Consumer Financial Protection Board gave Trump a way to gut an entity meant to protect consumers, something that Elizabeth Warren will be able to magnify better than anyone (all the more so if and when the economy starts to turn south). Appointing Big Dick Toilet Salesman Matt Whitaker to fire Jeff Sessions provides a different way to get to the Russian investigation, and may (if BDTS prevented Mueller from naming Trump in the Roger Stone indictment) focus more attention on the resolution of that case (which has the potential of being both a really damaging trial or a pre-trial pardon). The appointment of Patrick Shanahan as Acting Secretary of Defense provides a way to focus on ethics complaints about his tenure, to say nothing about Trump’s tolerance for familial abuse. And Trump must be held accountable for whatever predictable problems selecting a loyalist over Sue Gordon as Acting DNI will cause — and some of the predictable problems, which might involve North Korea, Iran, or cybersecurity, could be quite damning.

Another impeachment cause that would invoke some of the same issues as the Russian investigation, but in a way that would be more awkward for the President, is Trump’s abuse of security clearances, starting with, but not limited to, Kushner’s (this is an issue where the Oversight Committee has done great work). An inquiry into why Trump gave Kushner clearance would provide a way to get to Kushner’s awkward role in foreign policy, particularly the possibility that he shared US classified information with Gulf oligarchs. If Kushner is found to have shared intelligence allowing Mohammed bin Salman to target Al-Waleed bin Talal or Jamal Khashoggi, it will invoke a slew of issues that will put Republicans in an awkward position (and have the salutary effect of focusing attention on Trump’s refusal to keep the Saudis honest).

Democrats would be idiots if they didn’t make an issue of Trump’s self-dealing, including but not limited to emoluments. It’s likely Republicans would defend the President on this point, but if they do, it can form the basis for legislation to more clearly prohibit such self-dealing going forward if Democrats do well in 2020. In addition, it goes to an issue that was absolutely key to Trump’s supporters, #DrainTheSwamp, but on which he has been (predictably) an utter failure.

Finally, Democrats should include Trump’s refusal to respond to violations of the Presidential Records Act in any impeachment inquiry. It is true that most Administrations have had problems adhering to PRA going back to Poppy Bush (Obama is to a large extent an exception, but Hillary’s avoidance of the Federal Records Act undermines that good record). But when pressed, most prior Administrations have been forced to admit the details of their failures to fulfill the law. Here, Trump has simply refused to respond to all questions about PRA violations. Some of these violations involve key players in the Russian investigation: Jared, KT McFarland, and Bannon. But these same people were involved in other scandals, such as the willingness to sacrifice US standards on nuclear security so that a bunch of Republicans can make $1 million per reactor (again, this would incorporate great work done by OGR).

This is a non-exclusive list. The point is, however, that HJC should frame their impeachment inquiry broadly, partly because some of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors have pissed off Republicans in the past, and partly because a failed impeachment trial can still frame Republican obstruction in a way that voters will care about.

Obviously, I think Trump’s conduct during the Russian investigation is important, and it’s all packaged up with a bow. But it’s not even just obstruction. Trump lied under oath in his written responses to Mueller. And Trump cheated to win an election. So even while pursuing impeachment on Russia, it needs to be more broadly conceived than the issues that Don McGahn can address. 

Other witnesses have more to offer than Don McGahn

So even in the emphasis on the Russia investigation, I think there is at least one better witness: Jay Sekulow. Sekulow has done a number of things that don’t qualify for attorney client privilege, such as his conversations directly with Michael Cohen to write a false statement hiding the President’s ties to Russia. That goes directly to Trump’s sworn lies.

Then there’s John Kelly. He was at DHS for the beginning of Trump’s abusive immigration policies. He knows details of Trump’s security clearance abuses (and might actually give a damn about them). He should know details of the PRA violations (and if not, should be accountable for why not). And he knows details of Kushner’s privatized foreign policy (and probably tried to control it). Kelly was a minor witness for Robert Mueller, but should be a key witness to any impeachment inquiry.

Finally, there’s the role of the Office of Legal Counsel and its head Steve Engel in all this. Some of OLC’s opinions enabling Trump’s abusive acts have been every bit as dodgy as John Yoo’s ones. It is the place of DOJ’s oversight committee to review the circumstances of those shitty opinions. While the government would likely fight this testimony particularly aggressively based on deliberative and attorney-client privileges, both John Yoo and Steven Bradbury have testified before, Yoo on an issue (torture) pertaining to abuse. Engel would still be able to testify about patterns of communication and the degree to which Trump dictated outcomes.

I’ll grant you, there are good reasons why McGahn may be a good tactical witness. I suspect that, by the time he testified, McGahn might be prepared to Bigfoot his testimony, not least in an attempt to cleanse himself of the Trump taint. So at that level, he may be a willing, damning witness.

So calling McGahn the most important witness might just be a legal tactic, a means to tie HJC’s obstruction inquiry with witnesses who have been blocked from testifying. And the White House Counsel position (to say nothing of the former White House Counsel position) is one for which there is precedent (under Clinton and Bush) for coerced testimony.

But I hope to hell HJC doesn’t really believe he’s the most important witness.

The Commander-in-Chief Keeps Instructing His National Security Officials Not to Protect the Country

One of the most alarming passages in the Mueller Report describes how, in an effort to get Corey Lewandowski to convince Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal in the Russian investigation, Trump suggested that Mueller could be limited to investigating future election hacks. (h/t to TC who has been emphasizing this passage)

During the June 19 meeting, Lewandowski recalled that, after some small talk, the President brought up Sessions and criticized his recusal from the Russia investigation.605 The President told Lewandowski that Sessions was weak and that if the President had known about the likelihood of recusal in advance, he would not have appointed Sessions.606 The President then asked Lewandowski to deliver a message to Sessions and said “write this down.” 607 This was the first time the President had asked Lewandowski to take dictation, and Lewandowski wrote as fast as possible to make sure he captured the content correctly.608 The President directed that Sessions should give a speech publicly announcing:

I know that I recused myself from certain things having to do with specific areas. But our POTUS . .. is being treated very unfairly. He shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel b/c he hasn’t done anything wrong. I was on the campaign w/ him for nine months, there were no Russians involved with him. I know it for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.609

The dictated message went on to state that Sessions would meet with the Special Counsel to limit his jurisdiction to future election interference:

Now a group of people want to subvert the Constitution of the United States. I am going to meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections so that nothing can happen in future elections.610

The President said that if Sessions delivered that statement he would be the “most popular guy in the country.”6 11 Lewandowski told the President he understood what the President wanted Sessions to do.612

In June 2017, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States suggested that the FBI should not investigate a historic cyberattack by an adversary on the United States. The investigation Trump was obstructing was not just of his own conduct, but also that of Russia.

That revelation puts two other events in dramatically different light.

First, recall that when Congress was considering bills to ensure election integrity last year, Trump pre-empted the effort with an Executive Order imposing a two step review, after the fact, to see if foreign adversaries had attempted to interfere in the election. First, ODNI does a report on the election, then he delivers it to other Executive Branch Officials. Then DHS Secretary and the Attorney General deliver a report based on that describing whether the effort to interfere had had a material effect. That report, too, just gets delivered to Executive Branch officials.

Section 1. (a) Not later than 45 days after the conclusion of a United States election, the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the heads of any other appropriate executive departments and agencies (agencies), shall conduct an assessment of any information indicating that a foreign government, or any person acting as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign government, has acted with the intent or purpose of interfering in that election. The assessment shall identify, to the maximum extent ascertainable, the nature of any foreign interference and any methods employed to execute it, the persons involved, and the foreign government or governments that authorized, directed, sponsored, or supported it. The Director of National Intelligence shall deliver this assessment and appropriate supporting information to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.

(b) Within 45 days of receiving the assessment and information described in section 1(a) of this order, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the heads of any other appropriate agencies and, as appropriate, State and local officials, shall deliver to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Defense a report evaluating, with respect to the United States election that is the subject of the assessment described in section 1(a):

(i) the extent to which any foreign interference that targeted election infrastructure materially affected the security or integrity of that infrastructure, the tabulation of votes, or the timely transmission of election results; and

(ii) if any foreign interference involved activities targeting the infrastructure of, or pertaining to, a political organization, campaign, or candidate, the extent to which such activities materially affected the security or integrity of that infrastructure, including by unauthorized access to, disclosure or threatened disclosure of, or alteration or falsification of, information or data.

The report shall identify any material issues of fact with respect to these matters that the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security are unable to evaluate or reach agreement on at the time the report is submitted. The report shall also include updates and recommendations, when appropriate, regarding remedial actions to be taken by the United States Government, other than the sanctions described in sections 2 and 3 of this order.

Predictably, when the deadlines for these reports came due after the mid-term elections last year, the Trump Administration balked at sharing all this reporting with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Then there’s this NYT report revealing that the Mick Mulvaney told DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to involve the Commander-in-Chief in any effort to keep this country’s elections safe, which (the report implicitly suggests) made it far more difficult for Nielsen to make protecting elections a priority.

Ms. Nielsen left the Department of Homeland Security early this month after a tumultuous 16-month tenure and tensions with the White House. Officials said she had become increasingly concerned about Russia’s continued activity in the United States during and after the 2018 midterm elections — ranging from its search for new techniques to divide Americans using social media, to experiments by hackers, to rerouting internet traffic and infiltrating power grids.

But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

Even though the Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for civilian cyberdefense, Ms. Nielsen eventually gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect next year’s elections.

[snip]

Ms. Nielsen grew so frustrated with White House reluctance to convene top-level officials to come up with a governmentwide strategy that she twice pulled together her own meetings of cabinet secretaries and agency heads. They included top Justice Department, F.B.I. and intelligence officials to chart a path forward, many of whom later periodically issued public warnings about indicators that Russia was both looking for new ways to interfere and experimenting with techniques in Ukraine and Europe.

[snip]

A second senior administration official said Ms. Nielsen began pushing after the November midterms for the governmentwide efforts to protect the 2020 elections, but only after it became increasingly clear that she had fallen out of Mr. Trump’s favor for not taking a harder line against immigration.

That official said Ms. Nielsen wanted to make election security a top priority at meetings of Mr. Trump’s principal national security aides, who resisted making it a focus of the discussions given that the 2020 vote was, at the time, nearly two years away.

Trump’s refusal to protect elections accompanies a de-emphasis — one enforced by John Bolton — on cybersecurity generally.

This is, quite literally, a case where the Commander-in-Chief is refusing to take the action necessary to protect the country from being attacked in the same way were most recently were attacked.

Update: Earlier this week Politico reported on the effects of a reorganization in Office of Management and Budget’s cybersecurity office before Mulvaney left OMB to become Chief of Staff.

Few Americans may have heard of the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer, but the unit inside the Office of Management and Budget coordinates tech improvements across the government, helping agencies boost cybersecurity and manage technology and cybersecurity budgets that totaled $105 billion in the past fiscal year.

But many OFCIO employees are overwhelmed by unclear and changing priorities, while others are simply checked out or feeling increasingly marginalized, according to an internal February staff survey that POLITICO obtained, along with data from an annual governmentwide report and interviews with a current OMB employee, five former OFCIO employees and three former senior federal officials familiar with the office.

The unit is grappling with “high turnover,” “a lot of infighting,” a “crushing workload” and “inaction from leadership,” said the current employee, who — like others interviewed for this story — requested anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.

“Things do slip through the cracks,” the OMB employee said. OFCIO’s guidance “impacts the long-term implementation strategy out in the agencies,” and if that’s lacking, there will be “a debilitating effect on overall cybersecurity in the long run,” the person said, adding that there was “real concern at the staff level that if this continues, something bad will happen and we won’t be ready for it.”

[snip]

“This organization looks like it’s in free fall,” said a former senior federal IT official who worked closely with the office.

[snip]

[A] November reorganization appeared to cause significant confusion and discontent among employees. It replaced a structure built around three core units — agency oversight, cybersecurity and policy development — with one centered on “workstreams” for activities such as cybersecurity risk and data strategy.

But the reorganization was “built on the fly” and poorly explained, said a former staffer. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said it was unclear how the reorganization improved office communication.

Adding to these woes is significant frustration with OFCIO’s senior leaders, especially Kent, a former Ernst & Young consultant who took over the office in March 2018 after the team went more than a year without a leader.

Kent, who lacks a cybersecurity or IT background, has fostered “a closed-door culture,” the current OMB employee said.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Into Shutdown Day 28: Is the GOP Senate Obstructing Justice?

[NB: Always check the byline, folks. /~Rayne]

As we roll through the afternoon into the 28th day of the longest-ever government shutdown, let’s revisit Senator Amy Klobuchar’s questions to Attorney General nominee Bill Barr before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

She asked him about his opinion on obstruction of justice. Barr discussed in his June 2018 memo addressed to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Steve Engel, focusing on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “‘Obstruction’ Theory.”

Four key points give pause:

  • Deliberately impaired integrity or availability of evidence;
  • Knowing destruction or alteration of evidence;
  • Ordering witness/es not to cooperate with investigation;
  • Misleading statements to conceal purposes.

Klobuchar asked Barr about each of these during the hearing:

(3:17) KLOBUCHAR: You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: Okay.

BARR: Or any, any, well, you know, or any person who persuades another, yeah.

(3:31) KLOBUCHAR: Okay. You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: Okay.

(3:42) KLOBUCHAR: And on page 2 you said that a president deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be an instruction*. Is that correct?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: Okay, and um, so what if the president told the witness not to cooperate with an investigation, or hinted at a pardon?

BARR: You know, I, I’d have to know the specific, I’d have to know the specific facts.

(4:03) KLOBUCHAR: And you wrote on page one that if a president knowingly destroys or alters evidence, that would be obstruction.

BARR: Yes.

(4:13) KLOBUCHAR: Okay. Um, so what if a president drafted a misleading statement to conceal the purpose of a meeting. Would that be obstruction?

BARR: Again, you know the, I’d have to know the, I’d have to know the specifics.

KLOBUCHAR: All right.

(* Not clear if she said “instruction” or “obstruction”; she was referring to the discussion obstruction in Barr’s memo.)

So what does this have to do with the shutdown? Regardless of the genesis and distribution of Barr’s memo or his opinion, these forms of obstruction are exactly what the government shutdown accomplishes.

Evidence to be gathered by and from some government resources may be limited by the furlough. IRS staff, for example, may have been called back to handle refunds but are there IRS staff on duty who may respond to subpoenas for tax returns? What of so-called “non-essential” personnel who might handle document requests in other departments? Have furloughed federal employees who are not yet called back indirectly ordered not to cooperate with investigations by virtue of their locked out status?

We already know that Trump avoided creating and processing records of his discussions with Putin, a likely violation of the Presidential Records Act. Has he further destroyed or altered evidence subject to the PRA but prevented staff responsible for handling and recovering destroyed/altered evidence from doing so with the shutdown? (Recall the archivist-records managers who had been taping together Trump’s documents but were fired by second quarter 2018.)

Has the demand for the wall itself, in any statements or writings demanding this wall, been an attempt to conceal the true intent of the shutdown as an act of obstruction? Recall how upset Trump was with Mick Mulvaney when Mulvaney tried to offer a number lower than Trump’s demanded $5.7B and higher than House Democrat’s offered $1.3B; Trump yelled at him in front of members of Congress and told him, “You just fucked it up!

Was it not the wall’s funding but obstruction by shutdown Mulvaney interfered with by trying to offer a means to reopen the government?

If there is any doubt at all about these points, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is obligated to permit bills through which would end the shutdown or at least extend temporary funding, so that obstruction by shutdown is at an end.

The GOP Senate caucus is likewise obligated to take measures to end the shutdown, including replacement of their Senate Majority Leader if he continues to obstruct government’s operation.

Neither McConnell nor the GOP Senate caucus appear to be acting in good faith about this shutdown. At least Mulvaney made a reasonable, good faith effort before being sworn at and shot down by Trump.

If we thought the GOP Senate was compromised before by Russian-furnished NRA money, they deepen their compromise by refusing to address the obstructive shutdown. Is their “lack of alarm” about the lengthening shutdown due not to their ideology but their resignation to this obstruction?

Why is Mitch McConnell still Senate Majority Leader at this point? Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was asked to step down for supporting a noted racist, and McConnell know this because he was instrumental to Lott’s removal.

Why is the GOP Senate aiding and abetting this obstruction of justice at scale?

#WhyMitch

Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121

On Narrating Donald Trump: “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice'”


Pretty much everyone I know is recommending this New Yorker profile describing how Mark Burnett created Donald Trump’s current image (and with it his electoral prospects).

Along with describing how both Trump and Burnett came to turn the popularity of the show into a marketing vehicle and a Trump’s telling claim that he initially hesitated before signing onto reality teevee because the, “contractors, politicians, mobsters, and everyone else I have to deal with in my business … don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room,” the piece describes how the show depicted not reality, but a heavily edited narrative trying to retroactively justify Trump’s capricious firing decisions each week.

The result created the illusion that a serially bankrupt joker was, instead, a king.

Burnett has often boasted that, for each televised hour of “The Apprentice,” his crews shot as many as three hundred hours of footage. The real alchemy of reality television is the editing—sifting through a compost heap of clips and piecing together an absorbing story. Jonathon Braun, an editor who started working with Burnett on “Survivor” and then worked on the first six seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me, “You don’t make anything up. But you accentuate things that you see as themes.” He readily conceded how distorting this process can be. Much of reality TV consists of reaction shots: one participant says something outrageous, and the camera cuts away to another participant rolling her eyes. Often, Braun said, editors lift an eye roll from an entirely different part of the conversation.

At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

Such sleight of hand is the industry standard in reality television. But the entire premise of “The Apprentice” was also something of a con. When Trump and Burnett told the story of their partnership, both suggested that Trump was initially wary of committing to a TV show, because he was so busy running his flourishing real-estate empire. During a 2004 panel at the Museum of Television and Radio, in Los Angeles, Trump claimed that “every network” had tried to get him to do a reality show, but he wasn’t interested: “I don’t want to have cameras all over my office, dealing with contractors, politicians, mobsters, and everyone else I have to deal with in my business. You know, mobsters don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room. It would play well on television, but it doesn’t play well with them.”

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.

[snip]

Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” Katherine Walker told me that producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self,” she said, adding, “I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited.” [my emphasis]

Throughout, the piece both implicitly and explicitly suggests that the White House is adopting techniques from the show in burnishing Trump’s power. Or, at least, Trump is asking that his handlers replicate the same frames of power that Burnett used.

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

[snip]

Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show. Jonathon Braun pointed out to me that when Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ” [my emphasis]

One of the most interesting details in the piece is that Democrats actively (and successfully) lobbied musical talent to blow off Trump’s inauguration, themselves performing a kind of script-writing that has haunted Trump since.

A Democratic political operative who was involved in a back-channel campaign to dissuade big-name stars from appearing at the event told me that Burnett had tried to enlist musicians to perform. “Mark was somebody we were actively working against,” the operative said. Trump’s wish list included Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Paul Anka—who, he hoped, would sing “My Way”—but they all claimed to be otherwise engaged. The event ended up with sparse crowds and a feeble roster of performers.

Because I dawdled before reading the piece, I was reading it at the same time as reading coverage of the shutdown. That coverage highlights the results of running a Reality Teevee star as President. There’s NYT report that the reason why Trump has shut down the government to get Congress to fund him a wall is because Sam Nunberg and Roger Stone (and Steve Bannon) used the wall as a mnemonic device to get Trump to repeat his lines.

“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump’s early political advisers, recalled telling Roger J. Stone Jr., another adviser. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”

[snip]

“As a messaging strategy, it was pretty successful,” [anti-immigration activist Mark] Krikorian said. “The problem is, you got elected; now what do you do? Having made it his signature issue, Trump handed the Democrats a weapon against him.”

We’ve shut down the entire government because an entertainment professional always refused to memorize his lines (or as someone on Twitter noted, use a teleprompter), and so the unstable hacks who managed him early on invented a policy promise that not even hardline anti-immigration experts want.

And Trump seems to be judging the advice on the shutdown he receives based on how sycophantically his interlocutors judge his “performance” trying to ratchet up pressure for a wall.

Trump spent much of Saturday on the phone with allies, talking through his positioning on the shutdown and hearing their reviews of his Rose Garden performance, according to a person close to him. Two people regularly on his call list — Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — have encouraged Trump to take a hard line and refuse to agree to reopen the government unless wall funding is secured, the person said.

Trump, who doesn’t understand the successful tycoon that starred in The Apprentice was the product of heavy editing, has now taken to editing himself, trying to fulfill the things the Campaign Reality Teevee star said over and over, based off what Mark Meadows and Lindsey Graham  tell him.

The New Yorker profile, however, offers scant solutions to the problem that Burnett created — just his ex-wife imploring him to tell Trump he’s not actually living a reality show, as if that will fix the problem.

One day this past fall, Burnett got a call from his first wife, Kym Gold, with whom he remains friendly. Gold was upset about what was happening in the country, and asked Burnett to intervene with Trump. “We had it out,” she told me. “I said, ‘You’ve got to help our children, for the future and safety of this country.’ ” Gold implored Burnett, “Tell him this is not a reality show. This is real life. You’re the President. You’re saying things you cannot say—to reporters, to other world leaders.”

But that wouldn’t fix it even if Burnett were willing to risk losing access to Trump by telling him.

The problem, and any potential solutions, is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. No one is going to cure Trump of his addiction to being framed to look powerful. If he doesn’t get that high from his White House handlers, he will continue to fire them and look elsewhere, to people who are even better trained at flattery than Burnett. Trump now believes he can produce himself, based largely on the feedback of nutjobs like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.

I’m not actually advocating letting Trump frame himself as a king. But I also think that much of Democrats’ response involves trying to fact check Trump rather than reframe him. Your typical Trump voter isn’t going to give a damn that Trump is lying until some policy he has bragged about (up to and including the shutdown, but also his trade wars) ends up making them feel personally betrayed.

Mind you, I think Nancy Pelosi understands all this. She understands (like that other great female politician, Angela Merkel) that Trump will lose more if he is shown looking weak next to a woman than if someone proves his 100,000th lie.

That last of the self-imagined productive sycophants left with John Kelly. Trump now has a temporary Chief of Staff, one who will be gone once Trump decides to internalize Mick Mulvaney’s labeling of Trump’s position on the wall as “childish.” That creates a vacuum in the function of framing Trump’s image.

Update, January 12: This important op-ed from an OLC veteran describes how lawyers there do much the same as what editors on The Apprentice does.

But when I was at OLC, I saw again and again how the decision to trust the president failed the office’s attorneys, the Justice Department and the American people. The failure took different forms. Sometimes, we just wouldn’t look that closely at the claims the president was making about the state of the world. When we did look closely, we could give only nudges. For example, if I identified a claim by the president that was provably false, I would ask the White House to supply a fig leaf of supporting evidence. Or if the White House’s justification for taking an action reeked of unconstitutional animus, I would suggest a less pungent framing or better tailoring of the actions described in the order.

I often wondered, though, whether my attempts to remove the most basic inaccuracies from the face of a presidential order meant that I was myself failing to carry out my oath to protect and defend the Constitution. After all, the president had already submitted, through his early drafts or via Twitter, his reasons for issuing a particular order. I sometimes felt that, rather than engaging in professionally responsible advocacy, my OLC colleagues and I were using the law to legitimize lies.

I felt more than a twinge of recognition this month when reading a New Yorker article about Trump and the reality-TV show “The Apprentice.” Jonathan Braun, an editor on “The Apprentice,” described how editors would “reverse engineer” episodes after Trump made impulsive decisions about firing a contestant. The article described editors “scouring hundreds of hours of footage . . . in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.” Like a staff member at “The Apprentice,” I occasionally caught myself fashioning a pretext, building an alibi.

What Lies Beneath the Gates

[NB: Note the byline; this post is speculative. /~Rayne]

It’s amazing what a simple internet search can reveal. Take, for instance, a search using the rather innocuous parameters, [“rick gates” iii “press release”].

A little scrolling and presto — some interesting things surface.

Did you know that Rick Gates had served on the board of ID Watchdog, a “consumer-facing identity theft protection and resolution services” firm for use in safeguarding personal credit? But that’s not the entire story; take a look at this timeline:

2010 — Gates, along with his business partner Paul Manafort, worked as an unregistered agent for Victor Yanukovych (who would take office as Ukraine’s president in 2010) and Yanukovych’s political parties. Gates and Manafort represented Yanukovych from at least 2006 through 2015, laundering Yanukovych’s payments through scores of U.S. and foreign entities and bank accounts, using foreign nominee companies and bank accounts created/opened by them and their accomplices in nominee names and in various foreign countries (see DOJ’s indictment dated 27-OCT-2017).

19-APR-2011 — Gates joined the board of publicly-listed credit monitoring firm ID Watchdog. Gates bio from the press release:

Mr. Gates has over 15 years of international political, finance and business development experience working for multinational firms. Currently, he is the managing partner of Pericles LP, a private equity fund, that focuses on technology, infrastructure, and real estate targets. Much of his work focuses on investment, business development and deal structures in Europe.

Mr. Gates has worked on several US presidential campaigns and has participated in many international political campaigns in Europe and Africa. Mr. Gates graduated with a M.A. in Public Policy from George Washington University and a B.A. in Government from The College of William & Mary. He also completed the Executive Management Programme in Brussels and London.

26-JUL-2011 — 2010 tax filing (assume Gates filed his taxes on/about this time in the absence of confirmation by image of tax return); a fraudulent tax return was filed.

11-OCT-2012 through 14-OCT-2015 — Gates under-reported his income, filing fraudulent tax returns during this period which did not reflect full amount of payments from Yanukovych and parties. Gates also did not file Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) reports disclosing offshore bank accounts from which cash was wired after being laundered through numerous shell businesses.

21-JUN-2016 — When Paul Manafort was elevated by Donald Trump to campaign chair after firing Corey Lewandowski, Gates worked as Manafort’s deputy. He would remain deputy after Manafort resigned on August 19.

09-NOV-2016 — Gates stepped down from his role at ID Watchdog, a day after the 2016 presidential election. He then became deputy chairman of the inaugural committee.

??-DEC-2016 — A security researcher notified credit reporting company Equifax that an employee portal was open to the internet and vulnerable.

07-MAR-2017 — A patch was issued for the Apache Struts (CVE-2017-5638) vulnerability.

??-MAR-2017 — Equifax was hacked for the first known time; it contacted Mandiant for assistance. It did not notify the government or consumers.

…the company said it experienced a security incident involving a payroll-related service during the 2016 tax season earlier this year. Equifax said the incident was reported to customers, affected individuals and regulators.

??-JUN-2017 — Equifax closed the vulnerable employee portal

16-JUN-2017 — ID Watchdog announced it had agreed to be acquired by Equifax.

13-MAY/30-JUL-2017 — From Equifax’s press release dated September 15:

Based on the company’s investigation, Equifax believes the unauthorized accesses to certain files containing personal information occurred from May 13 through July 30, 2017.

29-JUL-2017 — Date which Equifax’s CEO said a breach was first noticed.

01/02-AUG-2017 — Four Equifax executives who sold a combined $2 million in company stock over these two days claimed they did not know about the breach at the time they traded their shares.

02-AUG-2017 — Equifax contacted Mandiant to conduct a forensic investigation into the breaches. The fourth of four Equifax executives sold a portion of his company stock on the same day.

10-AUG-2017 — Equifax announced it had acquired ID Watchdog.

07-SEP-2017 — Equifax notified the public that it has been breached and 145.5 million consumers’ credit data has been exposed.

18-SEP-2017 — Equifax’s earlier breach in March was made public.

27-SEP-2017 — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s then-Director Richard Cordray said regulators would be embedded within credit reporting companies to prevent future breaches of consumers’ data.

15-OCT-2017 — About this time, local news reported Gates was still working for Tom Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital and a member of the Presidential Council of Economic Advisers, prior to the indictment.

27-OCT-2017 — Gates was indicted for the first time.

15-NOV-2017 — Cordray stepped down as CFPB’s director.

25-NOV-2017 — Trump named Office of Budget and Management’s director Mick Mulvaney to succeed Cordray, to hold two offices concurrently.

18-JAN-2018 — Mulvaney allotted zero dollars for CFPB in the federal budget.

05-FEB-2018 — Mulvaney “pulled back from a full-scale probe” into Equifax’s breach.

This chain of events raises so many questions.

— Why Gates? Of all the people a public-listed company like ID Watchdog could pick, why this particular person with weak credentials in technology, let alone identity management or credit monitoring? Does Gates have a special relationship to ID Watchdog in some way?

— As a board member, what kind of access did Gates have to ID Watchdog’s systems? Did ID Watchdog have any ties or links to Equifax before the breaches?

— Did ID Watchdog provide any services to Gates — and possibly his partner, Paul Manafort — related to identity validation and monitoring? Did Gates acquire his second passport while serving on ID Watchdog’s board? What of his partner Manafort, who had at least 10 passports and possibly more identities?

— If ID Watchdog provided services to Gates, did any of Gates’ many bank accounts ever trigger alerts?

Gates “frequently changed banks and opened and closed bank accounts,” prosecutors said. In all, Gates opened 55 accounts with 13 financial institutions, the prosecutors’ court filing said. Some of his bank accounts were in England and Cyprus, where he held more than $10 million from 2010 to 2013.

— Doesn’t it seem odd Gates would serve on the board of an identity-monitoring firm located in Denver, CO while he was working frequently on lobbying-related contracts overseas and on the Trump campaign? Was he compensated by ID Watchdog and was this income reported accurately on tax filings?

— Did Equifax begin acquisition negotiations with ID Watchdog before or after Gates’ departure from the board? If before, did Gates play any role in the negotiations? Or does the timing of the acquisition simply look bad because of the breaches?

— Did Mick Mulvaney pull back on the CFPB’s investigation and oversight measures into Equifax as well as the other credit reporting bureaus to prevent any review of Trump campaign or administration members’ relationships with Equifax, or their data reported by Equifax and ID Watchdog? Did Mulvaney suppress the Equifax investigation and starve CFPB because he’s a misogynist ass and just wants to be a dick to Senator Elizabeth Warren? Or did Mulvaney merely toss ethics in his handling of CFPB including the Equifax investigation as payback for campaign contributors when he represented South Carolina as a congressman?

Perhaps it’s simply an interesting coincidence that a former Trump campaign team member who has been charged with multiple counts of bank and tax fraud, just happened to sit on ID Watchdog’s board of directors while he committed aforementioned fraud.

Maybe it’s just a weird quirk of fate that Equifax bought ID Watchdog around the same time it was being hacked a second time, potentially exposing Rick Gates’ credit records (and Paul Manafort’s) along with those of +145.5 million other consumers.

But it seems a massive stretch for us not to look a little further when Trump’s OMB director commits the CFPB to a slow death by budgetary starvation before icing the Equifax investigation and ID Watchdog’s role along with it.

Day 33: Happy Some Saint’s Day

I know, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, not just any saint but the patron saint of Ireland. It’s certainly not St. Trump’s Day, that’s for sure.

Trump’s budget proposal is the furthest thing from saintly — cutting federal funding to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) is just one disgusting example. CDBG provides grants to the Meals on Wheels (MoW) program, which feeds the home-ridden elderly and disabled as well as kids in after-school programs. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says MoW is “not showing any results.” No more fishes and loaves for you, sickly/old/poor people, if Congress goes along with this nonsense. I guess your desiccated, malnourished corpses are the kind of results this administration wants to see.

According to St. Patrick’s ‘Confessio‘ — an autobiography-cum-confession — he overcame kidnapping from Scotland, enslavement by the Irish, and eventually converted Irish to Catholicism. In contrast, Trump was born with a silver spoon and treated his fellow man (and some family) like crap throughout his lifetime. Definitely not saintly. And definitely not up to converting those who aren’t already his hardcore faithful adherents.

Stuff of the Irish:

Irish PM Enda Kenny visits Trump and asks for leniency for illegal Irish aliens — Let’s be frank about this issue: Trump’s probably fine with them (meaning Bannon is fine with them, too) because these aliens are probably white and Christian. Got to give it to PM Kenny, though, for this nice bit of snark:

“They say the Irish have the capacity to change everything…I just saw the president of the United States read from his script, entirely.”

Wonder if Trump was ballsy enough to go for an other conflict of interest and complain about the sea wall he wants for his Doobeg golf course resort.

British Brexit secretary David Davis says border checks between North Ireland and Ireland possible post-Brexit — He did qualify them as “light” customs checks, saying,

“There are already customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because there are excise differences, but they are done in a very light way. … There would be customs checks, [but] that does not mean we demur from our position of wanting to have a very light border, no hard border.”

But wait…what do the Irish think of this?

Sinn Féin MEP tells Theresa May Brexit border checks in Ireland can go ‘where the sun don’t shine’ — And there it is. I didn’t even paraphrase that hed, that’s exactly what The Irish Post wrote. Here’s exactly what MEP Martina Anderson said:

“Theresa, your notion of a border, hard and soft, stick it where the sun doesn’t shine ‘cos you’re not putting it in Ireland.”

Ouch. No mincing words there.

Women won largest number of seats ever in North Ireland’s assembly election — Sinn Féin leads in gender parity as women represent 41% of its Member of the Legislative Assembly. Between the surge of women in NI’s National Assembly and the increased weighting of representation by Sinn Féin in both NI and Ireland’s National Parliament, the reaction toward the UK and Brexit will be quite different from expectations nine months ago.

Banks may be moving to Dublin from London because of Brexit — This report says Ireland is surprised; I don’t know why, given the amount of business conducted in English language in Dublin as compared to any other location like Paris, Brussels, or Frankfurt. Ireland has been a tax haven and a center for both insurance and technology for a couple decades, too. Perhaps Ireland ought to be more lenient toward educated illegal aliens from the U.S. if it’s looking to staff up its financial sector quickly.

Op-ed: ‘Another day, another Brexit lie exposed’ — Theresa May has only increased Irish sympathies for Scotland with her rejection of a second independence referendum, as if all the other Brexit fail wasn’t enough. Could this animus be enough to unite Ireland, but against Britain and its “Tory public schoolboys”?

That’s a wrap on this work week and Day 33 in our countdown to Tax Day. Don’t drink green beer. Just don’t.