Legends don’t have to be true. No one believes that George Washington, as a lad, chopped down that cherry tree, and when confronted by his father, fessed up and said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.”
That’s admirable, but Mark Twain had two responses to this. First – “George Washington, as a boy, was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.” And there was this – “I have a higher and grander standard of principle than George Washington. He could not lie; I can, but I won’t.”
The whole thing was nonsense, but legends don’t have to be true. Americans like to believe that their first president just couldn’t tell a lie – ever. All subsequent presidents should be like George Washington, but there’s no way that George Washington could have survived in polite company, much less in politics, without a pleasant little bit of fudging the truth – it’s not always “a pleasure to make your acquaintance” after all. One simply says such things. One lies. Everyone lies. That’s what makes civilized life possible.
That means that no subsequent presidents have been like George Washington. Even George Washington wasn’t like George Washington – but that odd anecdote lives on. It speaks to character. Character counts.
We’re on our forty-fifth president now, and character still counts, but the odd anecdotes that reveal character have changed. That which Americans find admirable has changed. The stories change. Michael Kranish explains how a lawsuit that charged his father’s real estate company with racial bias influenced Donald Trump’s core philosophy:
This was a very serious lawsuit, one of the most significant racial bias cases at the time, and it’s very interesting. We were able to obtain, under Freedom of Information Act requests, all of the transcripts for this court case. What happened was Donald had to decide – was he going to settle this case or was he going to fight the federal government? One night in Manhattan he walked into a nightclub that he belonged to, and there was a man named Roy Cohn, and Roy Cohn of course is the famous or infamous lawyer who was the aide to Joseph McCarthy of the Army-McCarthy hearings that was held in the 1950s. Donald got to talking to Roy Cohn and told him about this racial bias case brought by the federal government, and Cohn, who had fought the federal government himself many times in his career, said: “Don’t settle. Fight like hell. When they hit you, hit back ten times harder.”
The bottom line is, after this discussion at the nightclub, Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell, and he absorbed in a philosophy that he maintains to this day – when you’re hit, hit back ten times harder.
And the rest is history. Everyone has heard of how Donald Trump refused to pay contractors, and when they sued him for their money, he countersued, for defamation of character or whatnot – for hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to his reputation. He had an army of lawyers. It would be nasty. No small or large contractor had the means to fight that out. They gave up. Many went under – and Trump got their goods or services for free in the end – and got richer. It pays to fight back ten times harder.
That worked way back when:
Representing Trump, Cohn filed a countersuit against the government for $100 million, asserting that the charges were irresponsible and baseless. The countersuit was unsuccessful. Trump settled the charges out of court in 1975 without admitting guilt, saying he was satisfied that the agreement did not “compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant.” The corporation was required to send a bi-weekly list of vacancies to the New York Urban League, a civil rights group, and give them priority for certain locations. Several years later (in 1978) the Trump Organization was again in court for violating terms of the 1975 settlement; Cohn called the new charges “nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents.” Trump denied the charges.
Cohn also counted Rupert Murdoch among his clients, pressuring President Ronald Reagan repeatedly in furtherance of Murdoch’s interests. Cohn is credited with introducing Trump and Murdoch in the mid-1970s, marking the beginning of what was to be a deep and pivotal association between them.
That’s cozy, and that business model became a political model. The primaries and the general election were all about hitting back ten times harder, even with nonsense and empty insults. It was all about dominance, about humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – we’d hit back ten times harder, and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. Whatever it was, he hit back ten times harder – and 62,984,825 voters loved it – even if 65,853,516 voters didn’t.
Why change now? It worked, and he’s found another way to hit back ten times harder:
Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.
Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.
The whole idea is to humiliate Mueller, and if that doesn’t work, to pardon everyone in sight, and himself, and laugh at them all, but there’s tedious work to be done:
With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump’s lawyers are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel’s work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump’s legal advisers.
A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.
The president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances, advisers said.
That’s what pisses him off:
His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.
And there’s this:
Further adding to the challenges facing Trump’s outside lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, according to two people familiar with his departure. Corallo did not respond to immediate requests for comment.
It may be that Mark Corallo wants nothing to do with this nonsense, but that doesn’t matter:
Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s private lawyers, said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.
“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”
Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump’s business dealings, including with a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008.
“They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow said. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”
That may not be relevant:
The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” But now, Trump is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime it encounters in the probe – including tax fraud, lying to federal agents and interference in the investigation.
“This is Ken Starr times 1,000,” said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. “Of course, it’s going to go into his finances.”
One thing does lead to another, which was the whole idea:
Following Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey – in part because of his displeasure with the FBI’s Russia investigation – Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order. That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.
Mueller’s probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
That calls for hitting back ten times harder:
Trump took public aim on Wednesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, whose actions led to Mueller’s appointment. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, the president said he never would have nominated Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the case.
Some Republicans in frequent touch with the White House said they viewed the president’s decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general’s days were numbered. Several senior aides were described as “stunned” when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department.
Another Republican in touch with the administration described the public steps as part of a broader effort aimed at “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.
“Who attacks their entire Justice Department?” this person said. “It’s insane.”
Roy Cohn wouldn’t think it’s insane, but something else here might be:
Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.
“This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question,” said Brian C. Kalt, a constitutional law expert at Michigan State University who has written extensively on the question.
The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which gives the commander in chief the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That means pardon authority extends to federal criminal prosecution but not to state level or impeachment inquiries.
No president has sought to pardon himself, so no courts have reviewed it. Although Kalt says the weight of the law argues against a president pardoning himself, he says the question is open and predicts such an action would move through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court.
“There is no predicting what would happen,” said Kalt.
That does worry some people:
Other White House advisers have tried to temper Trump, urging him to simply cooperate with the probe and stay silent on his feelings about the investigation.
On Monday, lawyer Ty Cobb, newly brought into the White House to handle responses to the Russian probe, convened a meeting with the president and his team of lawyers, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Cobb, who is not yet on the White House payroll, was described as attempting to instill some discipline in how the White House handles queries about the case. But Trump surprised many of his aides by speaking at length about the probe to the New York Times two days later. Cobb, who officially joins the White House team at the end of the month, declined to comment for this article.
Yes, this Ty Cobb is related to that other Ty Cobb – the most hated man in baseball history – but now the idea is to hit back ten times harder, but subtlety and with discipline. The original Ty Cobb liked to slide into second cleats-up, to cause maximum injury – to end the other player’s career. The current Ty Cobb would like to dissuade Donald Trump from such things.
That might be hard, because Bloomberg News reported this:
FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings … SoHo development with Russian associates … 2013 Miss Universe pageant … sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch … dealings with the Bank of Cyprus … efforts of Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and White House aide, to secure financing for some of his family’s real estate properties…
The roots of Mueller’s follow-the-money investigation lie in a wide-ranging money laundering probe launched by then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara last year.
Kevin Drum wonders about this:
On the one hand, this stuff is all semi-related to Russia, and might therefore be relevant to the campaign issue. On the other hand, we’ve all seen what happens when special prosecutors get out of control and start investigating everything under the sun. So far this looks like it’s still legitimately tied to Mueller’s original brief, but it’s a close call.
But he doesn’t wonder about this:
Donald Trump sure knows how to screw up, doesn’t he? He fired James Comey because the FBI was investigating Russia and he fired Preet Bharara because he was leading an investigation of money laundering. The end result was to bring more attention to both of these issues and put them in the hands of a guy with a big budget and nothing else to distract him. Nice work, Donald. Anybody else you want to fire?
Yes, Jeff Sessions and Robert Mueller, but David Ferguson has more:
Deutsche Bank has agreed to hand over records of its financial dealings with President Donald Trump after months of stalling and insistence that the records are confidential and privileged information.
Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin wrote on Thursday that the German company was one of the last banks on Wall Street willing to do business with Trump after his long line of bankruptcies and unpaid debts.
Deutsche Bank loaned Trump hundreds of millions of dollars when no one else would. Now banking regulators are questioning why the banking giant would take on that kind of risk and taking a closer look at the relationship between Trump and Deutsche Bank – which, like the president, has significant ties to the Russian oligarchy.
The New York Times reported that investigators are “reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made to Mr. Trump’s businesses through Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management unit to see if the loans might expose the bank to heightened risk.”
Deutsche Bank executives, the Guardian said, are bracing for subpoenas from former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, which is reportedly expanding to include Trump’s ties to Russian money laundering and organized crime.
Ferguson adds this:
Over the last 20 years, Levin said, the German bank has loaned Trump more than a billion dollars, in spite of the fact that he sued the company when he fell behind on payments on a $630 million loan to build the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.
Trump wound up taking out another Deutsche Bank loan from the wealth management division to pay off the earlier loan after he first sued the bank for its role in the U.S. financial crisis and getting counter-sued in return.
Don’t even ask. Roy Cohn would be proud, but there’s this:
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are also Deutsche Bank lending clients, as well as members of Kushner’s family.
Investigators are also looking into Deutsche Bank’s relationship with Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank, whose chief executive Kushner met with and forgot to mention on his security clearance application.
In response to inquiries by Congressional Democrats, initially Deutsche Bank balked, citing privacy laws. However, on Wednesday the company agreed to comply with investigators.
This calls for a lot of hard hitting back, and Josh Marshall sums that up:
President Trump will define the scope of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller will continue his investigation only as long as President Trump wants: Trump and his spokespeople have now repeatedly said that the President reserves the right to fire Mueller. The President is also prepared to pardon some or all of the people under investigation. Again, many details, one upshot: Mueller can only do what the President allows. That amounts to saying that the President will not allow the law to operate with respect to him or his family.
From a different perspective, we are beginning to see what everyone who’s studied Trump’s business history knows: to paraphrase the Army maxim, Trump’s business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny.
Marshall thinks that had to happen:
President Trump has been in crooked business for decades: money laundering, mob partnerships, various straight-up swindles. Statutes of limitations will have run out on most of those infractions but not all of them. This has always been obvious to me and everyone else who’s looked closely at Trump’s record. What recent weeks have made clear to me is that there’s almost certainly lots of dirty laundry tied to money deals and connivances with the Russia government.
One thing does lead to another:
Trump is in many ways his own worst accuser. Anyone who’s been in business for decades would not welcome a searching legal scrutiny of years of business. Most people, certainly in Trump’s line of work, aren’t totally clean. And a determined prosecutor can often find technical infractions that in the normal course of things would never be an issue. So no one would like this. But Trump is willing to run the most unimaginable political and even criminal risks to block even the beginnings of a serious probe into his business history and the 2016 election.
That means that hitting back ten times harder isn’t going to work:
We are far, far past the point where there is any credible reason to doubt that President Trump is hiding major and broad-ranging wrongdoing. No mix of ego, inexperience, embarrassment or anything else can explain his behavior. It just can’t. He’s hiding bad acts. And the country is likely heading toward a major constitutional and political crisis because Trump is signaling that he will not allow the normal course of the law to apply to him – a challenge which puts the entire edifice of democratic government under threat.
We’ve come a long way from George Washington and that cherry tree. Donald Trump is chopping down everything. And he’ll fess up to nothing. It seems that character does count after all.