Matthew Whitaker plays to an audience of one

Natasha Bertrand writes:

It took about five minutes of questioning for the acting attorney general to provoke gasps and jeers in the congressional hearing room. “Your five minutes is up,” Matthew Whitaker, an ex–U.S. attorney turned toilet salesman, told the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler. Nadler cracked a smile, but from that point on, the rules of engagement seemed clear: Whitaker, with just days remaining in his legally dubious role as the interim head of the Justice Department, appeared to be playing to an audience of one.

President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker late last year to replace Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in early 2017 was viewed by the president as an unforgivable betrayal. But Whitaker was not the obvious replacement—he served for a few years as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, but spent far longer in private practice and partisan politics. He also served as a paid advisory-board member of a fraudulent invention-promotion firm. Later, he was the executive director of a conservative nonprofit funded by dark money. And then came his stint as a CNN commentator in 2017, during which he blasted Mueller and opined that his probe had “gone too far.” All of this received heavy scrutiny as the constitutional basis of his appointment was challenged in the courts.

But Friday marked his first oversight hearing on Capitol Hill.

“I’m confused, I really am,” Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries told Whitaker at one point. “We’re all trying figure out: Who are you, where did you come from, and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?” [Continue reading…]

Ronan Farrow says he also faced ‘blackmail efforts from AMI’ for reporting on the National Enquirer, Trump

The Washington Post reports:

Ronan Farrow said Thursday that he and “at least one other prominent journalist” who had reported on the National Enquirer and President Trump received blackmail threats from the tabloid’s parent company, American Media Inc., over their work.

Farrow’s allegation came just hours after Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos published a remarkable public post on Medium accusing the National Enquirer of attempting to extort and blackmail him by threatening to publish intimate photos unless he stopped investigating the publication. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Last April, Farrow published an article in the New Yorker about the Enquirer’s “catch and kill” practice — in which stories are buried by paying off sources — that benefited Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

AMI did not immediately return a message from The Post about Farrow’s claim.

The allegations from Bezos and Farrow have since prompted other journalists and media outlets to come forward with claims that they, too, had been targeted by AMI for reporting on the Enquirer. [Continue reading…]

From Costa Rica to New Jersey, a pipeline of illegal workers for Trump goes back years

The Washington Post reports:

At his home on the misty slope of Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Dario Angulo keeps a set of photographs from the years he tended the rolling fairways and clipped greens of a faraway American golf resort.

Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.

Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.

It’s a common story in this small town.

Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.

“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.” [Continue reading…]

Justice Department opens probe into Jeffrey Epstein plea deal

Miami Herald reports:

The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta’s role in negotiating a controversial plea deal with a wealthy New York investor accused of molesting more than 100 underage girls in Palm Beach.

The probe is in response to a request by Sen. Ben Sasse, a a Nebraska Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who raised questions about the case following a series of stories in the Miami Herald. The Herald articles detailed how Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and other DOJ attorneys worked hand-in-hand with defense attorneys to cut a lenient plea deal with multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.

The Herald’s three-part series, ‘Perversion of Justice,’ was cited by Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd in his letter to Sasse. DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility will head the investigation, he said. [Continue reading…]

Secret files show how Trump Moscow talks unfolded while Trump heaped praise on Putin

BuzzFeed reports:

As a candidate, Donald Trump had a lot of praise for Vladimir Putin — and no business, he kept insisting, in Russia. These documents tell a different story.

When Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and longtime fixer, testifies before Congress this week, one topic that is likely to be front and center is his work on Trump Moscow, the over-the-top luxury real estate venture he helped spearhead leading up to the election.

The development, which was never built, has already become a focus for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 campaign. And when Cohen was convicted last November of lying to Congress, it was over his false testimony that the deal had fizzled in January 2016, well before Trump emerged as the Republican nominee.

BuzzFeed News is today publishing a cache of internal Trump Organization documents that lay bare the secret negotiations that continued long after Cohen claimed the deal had been abandoned. The documents, many of which have been exclusively obtained by BuzzFeed News, reveal that — despite Trump’s claim that the development was never more than a passing notion — the effort to get the tower built was long-running, detail-oriented and directly entwined with the ups and downs of his campaign.

As Trump went from rally to rally, vociferously denying any dealings in Russia, his representatives, Michael Cohen and his associate Felix Sater, worked with Trump Organization lawyers and even Ivanka Trump to push forward negotiations to build a 100-story edifice just miles from the Kremlin. The fixers believed they needed Putin’s support to pull off the lucrative deal, and they planned to use Trump’s public praise for him to help secure it. At the same time, they plotted to persuade Putin to openly declare his support for Trump’s candidacy. “If he says it we own this election,” Sater wrote to Cohen. [Continue reading…]

A lobbyist at the Trump Tower meeting received $500,000 in suspicious payments

BuzzFeed reports:

A Russian-born lobbyist who attended the controversial Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 received a series of suspicious payments totaling half a million dollars before and after the encounter.

Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that Rinat Akhmetshin, a Soviet military officer turned Washington lobbyist, deposited large, round-number amounts of cash in the months preceding and following the meeting, where a Russian lawyer offered senior Trump campaign officials dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The lobbyist also received a large payment that bank investigators deemed suspicious from Denis Katsyv, whose company Prevezon Holdings was accused by the US Justice Department of laundering the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud. [Continue reading…]

How will John Roberts respond to a constitutional crisis?

Michael O’Donnell writes:

Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts gave the commencement address at the Cardigan Mountain School, in New Hampshire. The ninth-grade graduates of the all-boys school included his son, Jack. Parting with custom, Roberts declined to wish the boys luck. Instead he said that, from time to time, “I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.” He went on, “I hope you’ll be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others.” He urged the boys to “understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved, either.” And in the speech’s most topical passage, he reminded them that, while they were good boys, “you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it.”

As Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s maudlin screams fade with the other dramas of 2018, Roberts’s message reveals a contrast between the two jurists. Whatever their conservative affinities and matching pedigrees, they diverge in temperament. The lingering images from Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing are of an entitled frat boy howling as his inheritance seemed to slip away. By contrast, Roberts takes care to talk the talk of humility, admonishing the next generation of private-school lordlings not to smirk.

The chief justice also carries himself in a manner that reflects his advice. He chooses his words carefully. He speaks in a measured cadence that matches his neatly parted hair and handsome smile. He is deliberate and calm, not just in his public remarks but in his work as a judge—and as a partisan. Roberts declines to raise his voice or lose focus, because he understands politics as a complex game of strategy measured in generations rather than years. He also recognizes, but will never admit, that although politics is not the same thing as law, the two blend together like water and sand. More than 13 years into his tenure as chief justice, Roberts remains a serious man and a person of brilliance who struggles, under increasing criticism from all sides, to balance his loyalty to an institution with his commitment to an ideology.

The first biography of Roberts has arrived, Joan Biskupic’s The Chief. It will not be the last. A well-reported book, it sheds new light but is premature by decades. (Biskupic is a legal analyst for CNN.) As our attention spans dwindle to each frantic day’s headlines, we can forget that the position of chief justice is one of long-term consequence. Only 17 men have filled that role, and they have presided over moments of national crisis, shaping our government’s founding structure (John Marshall), hastening its civil war (Roger Taney), responding to the Great Depression (Charles Evans Hughes), and enabling the civil-rights revolution (Earl Warren).

Roberts seems ever likelier to face an equally daunting test: confronting a president over the value of the law itself. [Continue reading…]

Regulate social media now. The future of democracy is at stake

Anne Applebaum writes:

A few days ago, ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, discovered that a tool it was using to track political advertising on Facebook had been quietly disabled — by Facebook. The browser extension had detected political ad campaigns and gathered details on the ads’ target audiences. Facebook also tracks political ad campaigns, but sometimes it fails to detect them. For the past year, the company had accepted corrections from ProPublica — until one day it decided it didn’t want them anymore. It also seems like “they don’t wish for there to be information about the targeting of political advertising,” an editor at ProPublica told me.

Facebook also made news in recent days for another tool: an app, this time its own, designed to give the company access to extensive information about how consumers were using their telephones. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has defended the project vigorously, on the grounds that those who signed up to use this research app knew what they were doing — and were paid $20 a month. Unamused, Apple decided to intervene — and has now banned the app from its phones.

Both of these stories have something in common: They illustrate who is making the rules of our new information network — and it isn’t us. It isn’t citizens, or Congress, who decide how our information network regulates itself. We don’t get to decide how information companies collect data, and we don’t get to decide how transparent they should be. The tech companies do that all by themselves.

Why does it matter? Because this is the information network that now brings most people their news and opinions about politics, about medicine, about the economy. This is also the information network that is fueling polarization, that favors sensational news over constructive news and that has destroyed the business model of local and investigative journalism. The past few days have also brought news of staff layoffs at newspapers around the country, from Arizona to Tennessee to New Jersey.

I have singled out Facebook here because it is the dominant force in social media — like an old-fashioned monopolist, it owns Instagram and WhatsApp, too — but I could write similarly about Google, which is the dominant force in Internet search, or YouTube, which is owned by Google and is the dominant force in the distribution of video content. These companies also operate according to their own rules and algorithms. They decide how data gets collected and who sees it. They decide how political and commercial advertising is regulated and monitored. They even decide what gets censored. The public sphere is shaped by these decisions, but the public has no say. [Continue reading…]

Mueller’s case is a slam dunk but is Roger Stone too slimy to get flipped?

Peter Zeidenberg writes:

The long-anticipated indictment of Roger Stone finally dropped on Friday, and it landed on Stone like the proverbial ton of bricks. As someone who prosecuted Scooter Libby and others on similar charges and defended white-collar cases involving similar charges as those alleged here—false statements, obstruction of justice and witness tampering—my takeaway is that Stone should begin getting his affairs in order. Barring a presidential pardon (always the wild-card possibility with a POTUS like Trump) Stone will be convicted and receive a very substantial prison sentence. This is as close to a slam-dunk case as a prosecutor will ever bring.

There are several types of defenses that are typically employed when defending a case like this, and none of them are viable here.

“I didn’t actually say what the government alleges I said/the government didn’t understand what I said.”

This defense can often work when the false statements are based on an interview conducted by field agents who simply take notes of the interview and do not record it. In these instances, defendants can plausibly argue that either they did not understand the agents’ questions, or the agents either did not understand or did not memorialize their response accurately. Any ambiguity in the question or the answer can be exploited. But that won’t work for Stone, because the entire congressional hearing was transcribed, verbatim. The questions, and the answers, were under oath and were not at all ambiguous or open to interpretation.

“You can’t prove that my answer was false.”

In other words, cast doubt about the government’s version of what it alleges is the truth. Typically, this can be done by attacking the credibility of the government’s witnesses who are called to establish what the government contends actually happened. So, for example, if the government were reliant on Randy Credico or Jerome Corsi to tell the jury the “truth,” then Stone’s counsel could attack their credibility. Even the most straight-arrow witnesses can get tripped up on cross-examination on occasion. (If you doubt this, just dig up the descriptions of how Tim Russert, perhaps America’s most trusted journalist at the time, was tied up in knots on cross-examination when he testified in the Libby trial. Not pretty.)

Unfortunately for Stone, and what makes fighting this case futile, is that the government will not need to rely on the credibility of any individuals to make its case. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

Stone said on Sunday he would have to consult with his attorneys about potentially cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

“That’s a question I’ll have to determine after my attorneys have some discussion,” Stone said on ABC’s This Week. “If there’s wrongdoing by other people in the campaign that I know about – which I know of none – but if there is I would certainly testify honestly. I’d also testify honestly about any other matter including communications with the president.” [Continue reading…]

How Roger Stone could become a cooperating witness

Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, writes:

At first glance, Stone seems both extraordinarily slippery and exceedingly unlikely to cooperate. His career is marked by overarching hostility to the law, fair play and the truth. Stone started his political career in the 1970s, working for Richard Nixon. As would become a career hallmark, it was unclear what exactly Stone did; he boasted that he worked as a scheduler during the day but “[b]y night, I’m trafficking in the black arts.” Stone’s back is adorned with a large tattoo of Nixon’s face. In 1980, Stone co-founded the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. (Yes, that’s Manafort as in Paul; the firm now is two-for-four in having its principals federally indicted). In the 1980s, Stone began to work for Donald Trump, lobbying for Trump’s casino business. Stone has continued to work for Trump on and off since then. Throughout his career as a political operative, Stone has espoused hyper-aggressive theories you’d expect to hear from a college sophomore who has just read Sun-Tzu for the first time: “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.”

Stone publicly declared in mid-2018 that he expected to be indicted by Mueller, decrying the investigation as “an effort to silence or punish the president’s supporters and his advocates.” Stone has remained openly defiant of Mueller ever since. In December 2018, Stone flatly declared, “there is no circumstance under which I would testify against the President.” Trump in turn tweeted his support for Stone’s vow of silence: “Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’” After his arraignment on Friday, Stone reiterated from the courthouse steps that he “will not plead guilty to these charges.”

All in all, seems like a pretty clear no-go. But let’s step back for a moment. I’ve seen plenty of people cooperate who once seemed even less likely to flip than Stone. Every one of my mafia cooperators took a blood oath when they joined an organization whose fundamental principles require that cooperators be put to death. Indeed, several of my cooperators pled guilty to murdering people because those people were suspected of cooperating. So if my cooperators could turn on the mob, in violation of their blood oaths and at the risk of their own lives, then Stone can flip against a testy politician with a quick twitter thumb. [Continue reading…]