It was another freaky Friday. No, not the 2003 movie where Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis are the daughter and mother whose bodies somehow get switched, which seems to have something to do with a mysterious fortune cookie – a remake of the 1976 version where Jodie Foster was the daughter. Both films were rather stupid, but there’s a market for such things. Suddenly, no one is who they’re supposed to be. That can be played for laughs. That can make money, again and again, but were such a thing to happen in real life no one would be laughing. People are hardwired to expect the expected. Things should be as they’re supposed to be. No one really wants to be freaked-out.
But that happens. Donald Trump is not going to settle down and be “presidential” – everyone understands, now, that’s beyond him. He doesn’t have the knowledge or skills or experience to do that, he never did, or else he’s not interested in being anything other than what he is – he made a choice. It doesn’t matter. Expect the unexpected. Expect a freaky Friday now and then.
This was one. Fox News will say that nothing happened. MSNBC will say the whole world is falling apart. CNN will gather a panel of people who despise each other and let them shout at each other. But in this case, actual experts are nice. Barry Berke is co-chairman of the litigation department at a big “white shoe” law firm where he is a partner specializing in white-collar criminal defense. Noah Bookbinder is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former federal corruption prosecutor. Norman Eisen is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. These three know things. These three saw the Trump presidency falling apart:
On Friday, federal prosecutors in Manhattan and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, delivered a potentially devastating one-two punch against President Trump…
Calling on the court to impose a sentence of substantial imprisonment against Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York stated that Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the campaign were all directly involved in an illegal scheme to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with Mr. Trump. Prosecutors wrote that payments made by Mr. Cohen and other actions were taken “with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election” and pursued “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1” – that is, Mr. Trump.
Michael Cohen tipped them off. Now they’ve gathered the hard evidence. Trump told Cohen to break the law. He told him exactly what to do and Cohen did what he was told:
The Trump Organization’s reimbursements to Mr. Cohen for payments were fraudulently disguised as legal fees – and, according to the memo, were approved by senior executives at the organization. The New York prosecutors also disclosed that they are investigating additional unspecified matters involving Mr. Cohen and, presumably, the Trump Organization. In light of these disclosures, the likelihood that the company and the Trump campaign face charges is now high.
Although President Trump may avoid a similar fate because the Justice Department is unlikely to indict a sitting president, he could be named as an unindicted co-conspirator, as was President Richard Nixon, or charged if he leaves office before the statute of limitations runs out.
But wait, there’s more:
In crediting Mr. Cohen with providing “substantial and significant efforts” to assist the investigation, Mr. Mueller’s separate sentencing memo details new evidence of collusion with Russia, including a previously unreported phone conversation in November 2015 between Mr. Cohen and an unnamed Russian who claimed to be a “trusted person” in Moscow. The Russian explained to Mr. Cohen how the Russian government could provide the Trump campaign with “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level,” and offered to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
This newly disclosed conversation directly speaks to the question of collusion – the outreach was explicitly political and was focused on how each side would gain from a potential partnership.
But wait, there’s more:
Mueller also notes that Mr. Cohen provided his team with additional information relevant to the “core” of the special counsel investigation.
The special counsel focuses on Mr. Cohen’s contacts with people connected to the White House in 2017 and 2018, possibly further implicating the president and others in his orbit in conspiracy to obstruct justice or to suborn perjury. Mr. Mueller specifically mentions that Mr. Cohen provided invaluable insight into the “preparing and circulating” of his testimony to Congress – and if others, including the president, knew about the false testimony or encouraged it in any way, they would be at substantial legal risk.
How many people in the White House were helping Cohen plan his precise perjury and who were they? And there’s more:
Mr. Trump’s legal woes do not end there. The special counsel also advanced the president’s potential exposure under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for activities relating to a potential Trump Tower Moscow. Mr. Mueller noted that the Moscow project was a lucrative business opportunity that actively sought Russian government approval, and that the unnamed Russian told Mr. Cohen that there was “no bigger warranty in any project than the consent” of Mr. Putin.
If recent reports that Mr. Cohen floated the idea of giving Mr. Putin a $50 million luxury apartment in a future Trump Tower Moscow prove true, both the president and his company could face substantial jeopardy.
This was not looking good for the president, and then things got worse:
In a second blow to the president, on Friday prosecutors also disclosed a list of false statements that Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, allegedly made to federal investigators in breach of the cooperation agreement he entered into following his conviction for financial fraud and subsequent guilty plea to criminal conspiracy.
Some of the lies that the special counsel spells out in the redacted memorandum appear to implicate the president and those close to him in possible collusion and obstruction crimes. Notably, Mr. Manafort is accused of lying to the special counsel regarding his contacts with the Trump administration.
We don’t know the content of those contacts, but considering public statements about potential pardons, it is not hard to imagine they could implicate the president and others in a conspiracy to obstruct justice or witness tampering if, for example, they suggested a potential pardon if Mr. Manafort protected the president.
And then the assessment:
Contrary to the president’s claim that all of this “totally clears” him, the danger to Mr. Trump, his business and his campaign has compounded significantly.
Timothy O’Brien adds a bit more:
Mueller’s ten-page, partially redacted Manafort filing outlines why he and his team believe that Manafort lied to them ever since he decided to cooperate with their investigation in September.
They accuse Manafort of breaching the plea agreement in two ways. First, he allegedly dissembled about contacts he had with members of the Trump administration. He’s also said to have conspired with Konstantin Kilimnik – a Russian linked to his country’s intelligence network – between February and April to obstruct justice by shaping the testimony of two of Mueller’s witnesses. (Pro tip: It’s not a good idea to be in touch with a suspected Russian intelligence asset when you’re being prosecuted by seasoned federal law enforcement officials probing your role in Russian efforts to sabotage a presidential election.)
The Mueller team’s Manafort memo is embroidered with hard-earned confidence: “We are prepared to prove the basis for the defendant’s breach at a hearing that will establish each false statement through independent documentary and testimonial evidence, including Manafort’s subsequent admissions.”
This is trouble:
Trump’s name isn’t in any of the un-redacted portions of the Manafort sentencing memo but his presence looms large in all of the court filings since the defendants both worked for him. In a taste of what might still be coming, CNN reported earlier on Friday that one of the president’s ersatz lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said Mueller’s team told Manafort that Trump was lying when he said he didn’t know about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a Russian attorney offering compromising information about Hillary Clinton. Manafort was present at that meeting, along with the president’s son-in-law and current White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
Another thing to consider: Manafort breached his plea agreement with Mueller after being indicted for money laundering, bank fraud, tax fraud and failing to register as an agent of the Ukraine government. He was found guilty of bank and tax fraud, witness tampering, and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The money laundering and registration charges were never heard in a courtroom because he pleaded guilty to the other charges.
That is a lot of illegal and disreputable stuff, and Manafort’s plea deal likely would have spared him a meaningful chunk of prison time. Yet he lied to Mueller’s team and now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Why? I’ll venture to guess: He may be expecting a pardon from the president or he has been trying to protect third parties – perhaps from his roster of rough-and-tumble Russian and Ukrainian clients who might represent a threat to his family.
This is a mess, or it’s not:
The White House dismissed the three sentencing memos, with Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, specifically noting that the Cohen memos “tell us nothing of value that wasn’t already known.”
Trump himself took to Twitter to offer the optimistic conclusion that everything filed by prosecutors today “Totally clears the President. Thank you!”
Paul Waldman does not see that:
The president still seems to think that he can be saved from whatever this investigation uncovers. He just announced that William Barr will be his next attorney general, and the New York Times reported that in private, “Mr. Trump has also repeatedly asked whether the next pick would recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Russia in its interference in the 2016 election.” It’s as though he thinks this investigation is in its early stages and can be quashed by a properly loyal underling.
But at this point it doesn’t matter. It’s far too late. Trump’s former aides have cooperated, they’ve conducted their interviews with the special counsel, they’re being sentenced, the documents have been reviewed, the connections have been traced, and the full picture is soon to be revealed.
This scandal can’t be hidden away. Republicans in Congress can’t save Trump, his attorney general can’t save him, and no amount of desperate tweets can save him. Accountability is on its way, and it’s arriving very soon.
Perhaps so, but there was even more to this Friday:
Nearly nine months after his unceremonious firing by tweet, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is breaking his silence on his time in the Trump administration, venting that he had to repeatedly tell President Donald Trump that what he wanted to do would violate the law.
The former ExxonMobil CEO appeared at a fundraiser in Houston on Thursday evening where he sat for a conversation with CBS reporter Bob Schieffer and outlined how Trump had a “starkly different” style from Tillerson, who said the two also did not share a “common value system.”
That’s an understatement:
Tillerson said his relationship with Trump took off quickly – the first time he met the future president was the day he asked Tillerson to serve as the nation’s top diplomat – and that impulsiveness marked the rest of his tenure in the White House…
“It was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t – doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t – doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things but rather just kind of says, look, this is what I believe and you can try to convince me otherwise, but most of the time you’re not going to do that.”
Tillerson expected reason, but that wasn’t to be:
The two continued to clash when Trump would test the limits of his executive power and would grow frustrated when Tillerson would inform him that he didn’t have unilateral authority to do something. Tillerson, who once reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron” behind his back, said his downfall may have been his directness with the president in such instances.
“When the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here is how I want to do it, and I’d have to say to him, ‘Well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law, it violates the treaty, you know,'” Tillerson explained.
Tillerson did expect reason and thus he had to go:
“I didn’t know how to conduct my affairs with him any other way than in a very straightforward fashion. And I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do.'”
Tucker Higgins takes up the story from there:
President Donald Trump called former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “dumb as a rock” a day after Tillerson said the president encouraged him to break the law while he was in the administration.
“Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I am very proud of him,” Trump said on Twitter. “His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!”
Tillerson, lazy as hell, ran ExxonMobil, one of the largest corporations in the world, for decades, the decades Trump was in and out of bankruptcy and, faking it, so there was this:
In May, Tillerson delivered a thinly veiled rebuke to the president during a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute.
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” he said at the time.
On Thursday, Tillerson said that the way Americans consumed news concerned him, in an apparent reference to Twitter, the president’s favored tool for foreign policy announcements.
“I will be honest with you, it troubles me that the American people seem to want to know so little about issues, that they are satisfied with a 128 characters,” Tillerson said.
Someone is as lazy as hell and it isn’t him, and Chris Cillizza chimes in:
Remember that former FBI director James Comey has testified – under oath – that Trump, in a one-on-one meeting, asked him to put aside the Justice Department investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The President publicly pressured then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take up an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. (Clinton was not charged in a previous FBI investigation.)
Time and time again – particularly in his interactions with the Justice Department – Trump has shown that he has zero understanding of the limits of his job.
That means that Tillerson should not have been surprised:
Trump’s total ignorance of the law – whether willful or just from sheer obtuseness – is, at this point, a defining characteristic of his presidency. He simply doesn’t get that there are limits on his power, limits put in place to preserve the office of the presidency – and the broader institutions of our democracy.
We have a President who, according to his one-time FBI director and his first secretary of state, repeatedly proposed ideas that were in violation of established laws. Sit with that for a minute.
Or sit with this:
Stocks dropped sharply on Friday, concluding what has been a wild week for Wall Street. A weaker-than-expected jobs report and China-U.S. trade tensions sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average lower by 558.72 points to 24,388.95 and erased its gains for the year.
At one point, the Dow was up more than 8 percent for 2018.
The S&P 500 pulled back 2.3 percent to 2,633.08 and also turned negative for the year. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 3.05 percent to close at 6,969.25. Shares of large-cap tech companies led the way lower. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google-parent Alphabet all traded lower. Apple’s stock also fell 3.6 percent – erasing its gains for the year – after Morgan Stanley cut its price target on the tech giant’s shares, citing weakening iPhone sales.
For the week, the major indexes all dropped more than 4 percent. Thursday’s session included a violent drop of nearly 800 points, followed by a strong rebound from those levels. This week was also the worst for the indexes since March.
Something was up, and maybe it was this:
Stocks had been trading higher earlier Friday, but the market turned sharply lower after Trump administration officials seemed to contradict each other on trade.
While White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow sounded an optimistic note about China talks on CNBC, trade adviser Peter Navarro was simultaneously warning on CNN of higher tariffs if issues aren’t resolved during a 90-day negotiating period.
“We’ve gotten a hodge-podge of mixed messages from people in the same administration,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at B. Riley FBR. “We’re not sure who we’re supposed to listen to.”
Everyone was freaked out, even this guy:
President Trump may be conspicuously silent when it comes to major stock market losses, but he’s apparently still watching every move with rapt attention.
Several officials close to Trump say he values the Dow Jones Industrial Average as an indicator of his success and job performance in the same way he values presidential approval poll numbers, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The president reportedly watches every little update on TVs he tunes to business networks. “He’s glued to it,” one person close to the White House told the Journal.
Trump’s obsession with markets has continued this week after his self-described “historic” meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump is now reportedly questioning why the temporary tariff truce with China hasn’t reflected more positively in U.S. markets. While talking with his advisors, Trump was reportedly convinced the market lows were due to the Federal Reserve’s plan to raise benchmark interest rates. However, some investors and administration officials attribute the downturn to Trump labeling himself a “Tariff Man” on Twitter Tuesday, signaling potentially heightened tensions with China down the road.
He doesn’t want to hear that, but there are lots of things he doesn’t want to hear at all:
John Kelly is expected to resign as White House chief of staff in the coming days, two sources familiar with the situation unfolding in the West Wing tell CNN.
Seventeen months in, Kelly and President Donald Trump have reached a stalemate in their relationship and it is no longer seen as tenable by either party. Though Trump asked Kelly over the summer to stay on as chief of staff for two more years, the two have stopped speaking in recent days.
That’s the end:
When Kelly first replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff last summer, he ruled with an iron fist. He curbed Oval Office access, blocked certain outsiders from being able to call the White House switchboard and had broad authority over staffing.
But in the last months, Kelly has seen his status as chief of staff diminish. Trump began circumventing many of the policies and protocols he enacted, and he was on the verge of being fired or resigning numerous times.
Trump often vacillated between criticizing and praising Kelly, sometimes within minutes of each other. Kelly started holding increasingly fewer senior staff meetings – once daily occurrences were whittled down to weekly gatherings – and began to exert less control over who talks to the President.
And then it was over, but it was just another freaky Friday. Expect the unexpected and hang on. This one isn’t a comedy. And there will be more of these.