PAUL CONNEW: Trump’s double whammy
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Donald Trump is facing the most crucial phase of his turbulent reign. PAUL CONNEW reports on the bombshell news that could see the president impeached
'This is the worst hour of Trump's entire presidency — no, make that his entire life,' tweeted Norman Eisen, president Obama's former special counsel for ethics and government reform.
It's hard to disagree after Double Jeopardy Tuesday, the dramatic day that almost simultaneously witnessed one of POTUS's closest associates convicted of a string of serious financial fraud charges and another pleading guilty to violating election law by paying hush money to two women claiming to have had affairs with Trump — at the direction of The Donald himself.
By any yardstick, it was a very bad day for the president and a very good one for special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into alleged collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential campaign, and also into whether Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice.
It brings into sharp focus the potential for Tuesday, August 21, 2018, to go down in history as the day the wheels finally came off the populist, supposedly Teflon-coated Trump bandwagon and sent it heading down the same road to doom and disgrace under the threat of impeachment as The Donald's own political hero, Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
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It also sent shockwaves reverberating through the Republican party hierarchy ahead of this November's crucial mid-term elections. They'll be waiting anxiously on the first opinion polls to reflect the impact of Tuesday's remarkable events on public opinion. They're anticipating those polls can only boost the Democrats' hefty lead in the congressional race and could even overturn expectations that the GOP should hold on to its narrow majority in the Senate.
Equally worrying for the GOP leadership were the words of Lanny Davis, the tough-talking attorney for the president's former longtime lawyer, friend and 'fixer', Michael Cohen, after his client pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and — most important of all — that he violated campaign finance laws by paying 'hush money' to porn movie star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal to stop them from going public about their alleged sexual relationships with Trump. And that he did so at the express direction of the then presidential candidate himself with intent to influence the election outcome.
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It also effectively branded POTUS a liar over his earlier, oft-repeated claims that he had nothing to do with the payoffs.
Indicating that Cohen — who once pledged he'd rather 'take a bullet' to protect the president — was now prepared to perform a full volte-face, lawyer Davis warned: 'If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?
'Mr Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all he knows. He has knowledge of the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election as well as knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr Trump knew ahead of time about that crime.'
Before his decision to plead guilty, Cohen had also claimed that Donald Trump not only lied about sanctioning the mistress payoffs, but that he also knew in advance about the infamous Trump Tower meeting organised by his son Donald Junior with Russians offering 'dirt' on Hillary Clinton – which could also constitute a criminal breach of US election law.
Explosive stuff and — if true — it could certainly open the door to the impeachment of the president especially if, as anticipated, the Democrats comfortably capture more than the 24 seats they need to win control of the Lower House in the November mid-terms.
But while Michael Cohen was sensationally pleading guilty in a New York courtroom, Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was being found guilty by a Virginia jury on 10 out of 18 counts of massive bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to report foreign bank accounts. All the charges related to Manafort's long-standing involvement with pro-Russian interests in the Ukraine rather than directly to his work on the Trump campaign.
Significantly, in a sinister twist, the trial judge revealed that he received threats during the case and took the rare step of refusing to release the names of the jurors to the media to protect them.
But the bigger worry for a POTUS under pressure is that Manafort, who faces spending the rest of his life behind bars, is facing a second trial in Washington on September 17 that connects far more closely to his role in the Trump campaign. It centres on charges relating to lying to the FBI, money-laundering, foreign lobbying and prosecutors say they'll be producing more than double the amount of evidence involved in the first case.
It also raises the spectre that Manafort, who has so far consistently refused to co-operate with the Mueller investigation, could now flip too and co-operate with the special counsel in return for a reduced sentence down the line.
But it also revives the possibility that POTUS could yet gamble on carrying out previous hints that he might pardon Manafort — who he has consistently described as a 'good guy' being 'persecuted' by the Mueller probe — and risk igniting a constitutional crisis with the potential to split the Republican party as the mid-term elections loom ever closer.
According to well-placed sources, Trump is again flirting with the idea of demanding that attorney general Jeff Sessions sacks Mueller and shuts down his investigation – or even tries to use his own presidential power do so. That, too, would risk alienating all but the ultra-conservative, pro-Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, but The Donald is convinced that it would play well with his core support base around the nation and that would force the party establishment to stick by him despite their reservations.
Inevitably, and not surprisingly, Democrat party leaders have been quick to pile on the pressure and make it clear that they will press the case for impeachment if they win control of Congress in November.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats' party leader in the House of Representatives and a potential candidate for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020, denounced the 'rampant corruption and criminality at the heart of Trump's inner circle'.
She went on: 'Congressional Republicans' determination to cover up for the president and his criminal cronies betrays their oath of office and undermines their duty to the American people. House Republicans must abandon their complicity with president Trump and affirm that no one is above the law. The Trump administration and Congressional Republicans' unprecedented culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence is characteristic of the dysfunctional political system in Washington.'
Anticipating fresh moves by POTUS and hard-right Republicans to derail the Mueller investigation, Pelosi heaped praise on the special counsel and his team and cited the Cohen/Manafort cases as clear proof 'they are conducting thorough and professional investigations, which must be permitted to continue free from interference'.
But while Cohen/Manafort were the names dominating the news cycle, Trump suffered more significant blows with the news that two of his closest Republican allies on Capitol Hill are facing criminal charges.
Congressman Duncan Hunter, the second man to endorse Trump's presidential bid, has been indicted, along with his wife, for fraudulently diverting campaign funds to pay for lavish personal spending on exotic international holidays, personal medical bills and family school fees.
Meanwhile Chris Collins, Trump's first congressional backer for the presidency, is facing serious criminal charges for insider trading, compounding the escalating image of a presidency forged by and surrounded with corrupt, venal figures lacking moral compasses and, in some cases, with sinister links to Russian oligarchs closely connected to president Vladimir Putin himself.
Sources predict that Robert Mueller is poised to indict the president's son Donald Junior over the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Clinton, and that the special counsel will also soon move to indict at least one figure closely linked to Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct data mining company at the centre of serious dirty tricks allegations in both the 2016 presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.
Bannon planning mid-term crusade
If you swallow the official White House line Steve Bannon is strictly persona non grata, without access to — or influence with — the man he succeeded in putting there.
If you talk privately to certain White House aides and senior Republican party figures, it's a very different story. The Bannon influence is back big time, even if these days contact between the president and his election mastermind and former West Wing strategy chief is discreetly conducted via intermediaries.
But now moderate GOP figures and election strategists fear the 'Bannon Factor' could prove pivotal in shaping Donald's Trump's response to the Cohen/Manafort fallout, the Mueller investigation and the president's potentially divisive role in the November mid-term election campaign.
Bannon has just launched Citizens of the American Republic, an activist organisation with the mission of marketing the pitch that the mid-terms are essentially an up-and-down vote on preserving Trump's 'Make America Great Again' agenda and, more than ever now, saving POTUS himself from impeachment.
It was there with Trump's campaign rally response immediately after the Cohen/Manafort outcomes dominated the headlines and broadcast bulletins with a counter-attack on special counsel Mueller and an even louder than usual depiction of it as a witch hunt being carried out by pro-Democrat 'thugs'.
Working with Bannon are several former Trump campaign and White House figures, some with well-documented direct contact with the president. It includes Sam Nunberg, one of The Donald's oldest friends and political advisers and Michael Caputo, a senior Trump campaign strategist still highly-regarded by the president.
In a sense, it's the domestic US version of 'The Movement', the European think-tank Bannon launched this summer, with the aim of uniting the continent's ethno-nationalist, anti-immigrant movements, influencing European parliamentary elections, undermining the EU and which has apparently forged connections to key Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove – while also maintaining Bannon's links to Nigel Farage and his ally and former UKIP backer Arron Banks.
Bannon this week also stressed his determination to continue championing Johnson as the UK's next prime minister and promoting the odious Tommy Robinson as a 'British hero'.
But, in the wake of the Cohen/Manafort crises, he sees his movement's biggest challenge to be that of 'Saving the President' and maximising and mobilising the mid-term election turnout among the alt right, white nationalists and white supremacists, general ultra-conservatives and evangelicals who were the key to putting The Donald in the White House against all odds.
In the US, Bannon's Citizens of America movement is being reinforced by an incendiary documentary titled Trump@War, purporting to show a violent liberal backlash against voters who supported Trump. A dubious trailer claims to show Trump supporters clashing with leftist antifa 'rioters' while apocalyptic music plays and cuts to footage of 'fake news' MSM broadcasters criticising POTUS' policies.
The targeted release date for Trump@War will pointedly coincide with the second anniversary of Hillary Clinton's electorally disastrous speech in which she effectively branded all Trump voters 'deplorables'.
Certainly Bannon's keynote strategy of stepping up attacks on America's MSM as 'enemies of the people' was reflected heavily in POTUS's defiant response to last week's unprecedented, co-ordinated campaign by 350 US newspapers running same day editorials denouncing his attacks on the media and defending freedom of the press.
One Trump tweet, heavy on capitals, echoed word for word a Bannon line: 'THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our great country..BUT WE ARE WINNING!'
Moderate GOP establishment figures had been anxious to defuse Trump's anti-media war of words ahead of the mid-terms. Even more so now in the wake of Cohen/Manafort and indications that the tight-lipped Robert Mueller will soon spring more charges against members the president's inner circle and family.
Privately, senior GOP figures fear that the Trump/Bannon determination to step up the mid-term attacks on the media in abusive, whip-up-the-mob rhetoric could yet see a journalist badly injured or even – God forbid — killed by extremist Trump supporters. It helps explain why Republicans senators backed a unanimous resolution declaring 'the press is not the enemy of the people' and has an 'indispensable role to inform the electorate, uncover the truth... and act on the inherent power of the government'.
Meanwhile Bannon's new campaign group is pressing for Trump to maximise his personal appearances on the campaign trail to head off a mid-term 'massacre by the Democrats and the certainty of impeachment'. But many GOP election strategists are desperate to restrict him to his core support areas and keep him well away from more moderate GOP seats where the stench of racism and sexism are seen as toxic, the aura of corruption plays badly and talk of trade wars holds few attractions.
By the same token, the majority of Republican leaders are alarmed by the fallout from POTUS's legally questionable decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan — also, surprise, surprise, a Bannon target – and Trump's threat to revoke the security clearance of others who criticise him.
By this week almost 200 senior former US intelligence chiefs were backing John Brennan in his spat with the president. The former CIA supremo had infuriated Trump by calling his behind-closed-doors Helsinki meeting with Putin 'treasonous' and the president's claim of no collusion between his campaign and Russia as 'hogwash'.
Several of the protesting spy chiefs have likened Trump's actions to one of the most shameful episodes in US political — the McCarthy-era witch hunts with its notorious 'black lists'. With some flagging up that McCarthy's sinister chief lawyer was a certain Roy Cohn, who later simultaneously became both the New York mafia's lawyer of choice and Trump's trusted guru as he developed his Manhattan property empire.
Although Cohn, who was renowned for his savage opposition to the gay rights movement, was later exposed as being both gay himself and a paedophile, Trump still talks affectionately of his former lawyer and has been known to wish aloud that he was still alive to fight his corner against Mueller and his investigation into Russian collusion and presidential corruption and obstruction of justice.