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D.C. Memo: All the president’s bail bondsmen

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Expect the continued scrutiny on the Cohen case to center on what Trump knew about the payment and when.

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This week in Washington, there was some courtroom action for people linked to President Trump, as you may have heard. A Trump-backing GOP congressman misused campaign funds to buy golf shorts and Oakleys because he’s from San Diego.

This week in Washington

Greetings from the Twin Cities, where I’ve already put in a morning at the State Fair. I can report that the corn is sweet, the seed art is good-looking, and the crowd size is above average. I’ll be back today to spend some time with candidates, so follow me on Twitter (@sambrodey) if you want my political and food (mostly food) updates.

For the first time in what seems like a while, Minnesota’s political craziness was drowned out by the Swamp: was it ever a week in our nation’s capital. If you subscribe to this newsletter, you probably know that Tuesday saw courts hand down guilty verdicts for not one, but two close associates of President Donald Trump.

First off: a federal court in Virginia found Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty on eight felony charges of tax and bank fraud. He was not convicted of 10 other charges, which a juror later told Fox News was thanks to one holdout on the jury.

Prosecutors worked methodically to show how Manafort, a D.C. power lobbyist who got his start in 1970s-era GOP politics, cooked books to conceal his wealth. (But that cash went to a good cause: moving swimming pools a few inches to catch sunlight.) Manafort faces trial next month in Washington on separate charges related to his shady work on behalf of a Ukrainian strongman allied with the Kremlin.  

Certainly, it’s not a good look when your central campaign promise is to drain the Swamp and your campaign chairman is later convicted on some really Swampy charges. But it’s a worse look when your personal lawyer pleads guilty to helping you cover up a sex scandal, which is what happened in New York on Tuesday.

Longtime Trump counsel Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including two felony violations of campaign finance law, saying under oath that Trump directed him to pay off the adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election so she wouldn’t talk about their decade-old affair. That $130,000 payment, made via a Cohen shell organization, constitutes an in-kind campaign contribution that blows past the $2,700 limit set by federal campaign law. Facing significant jail time, Cohen is expected to cooperate with federal prosecutors in New York City.

This is all really bad for Trump: expect the continued scrutiny on the Cohen case to center on what Trump knew about the payment and when. His team insists POTUS knew of it after the fact; Cohen says otherwise, and may have lots more to say about Trump, and it probably won’t be that he’d “take a bullet” for the man.

So, how is POTUS spinning it? He tweeted that Manafort is a good guy being nailed on old criminal charges that have nothing to do with his campaign, and certainly nothing to do with Russia. “Witch hunt!” he exclaimed, noting that Manafort was not found guilty on 10 of the 18 charges against him. (If you’re talking about the number of guilty versus mistrial charges, things are probably not going well.)

His spin on Cohen is more straightforward: he didn’t do anything illegal! (And is also bad!) Jury’s out on that second point, but on the first, campaign finance experts are pretty clear that this activity constitutes lawbreaking.  (WaPo takes us inside the West Wing as the president’s men and women try to figure out “how to spin a fact.”)

A lot of talk this week about what Cohen’s admission of guilt means for the question of Trump’s guilt. (Perhaps you’ve heard the term “unindicted co-conspirator.”) Politico checked in with legal experts on the question; Vox checked in with 13 (!) of them. Good week for legal experts!

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, among the most plugged-in reporters to Trump World, has a piece on the one-two punch to POTUS that Tuesday represents. Politico’s Lorraine Woellert, who was the White House press pooler that day, has a dispatch detailing the mood inside Air Force One on the way to a Trump rally in West Virginia as the awful headlines for Trump kept rolling.

Worth noting that Manafort’s charges were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, but the Cohen stuff is all in the purview of federal prosecutors in New York. The Los Angeles Times writes that office, not Mueller’s, could be the big one to watch, as Trump’s troubles spread far beyond talk of collusion.

The Cohen business is rustling up more talk of impeachment from more people than probably any other point in the Trump presidency, reports Politico. Democrats are wary of making impeachment a midterm issue — they fear it could be fuel to galvanize Trump’s base to the polls in November — and have not made too much grist for impeachment out of this week’s news, says BuzzFeed. But Bret Stephens, the NYT op-ed stable’s resident Real Conservative, says it’s undoubtedly time for impeachment.

Coming Attractions alert: remember Michael Flynn, Trump’s one-time national security adviser? He’s pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia. This week, Mueller pushed back Flynn’s sentencing another month — suggesting Flynn, an active member of the 2016 Trump campaign, continues to offer more information to the special counsel’s team.

Capitol Hill was no slouch in the Swamp Department this week: Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, was indicted for misuse of some $250,000 in campaign funds. The charges are pretty incredible — the indictment details how Hunter, whose father once held the San Diego-area seat, used campaign donations as a personal slush fund to bankroll a lifestyle beyond his family’s means.

Some examples: Hunter filed a purchase of shorts from a golf club as a donation to a veterans’ charity; his wife bought cosmetics at Nordstrom and filed it as a charitable donation. A $600 plane ticket was purchased for a pet rabbit. The San Diego Union-Tribune has been all over the Hunter story for months; check out their timeline here.

Hunter’s indictment comes on the heels of the indictment of Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, on insider trading charges. Fun fact: Collins and Hunter were the first two sitting members of Congress to endorse Trump for president. (The third is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.)

These two instances of what looks like staggering corruption — from two Republicans closely linked to Trump — is bad for the president’s image and the GOP’s. It’s creating openings for Democrats in more ways than one: more immediately, the charges make Hunter newly vulnerable, giving Democrats a fighting chance in districts that are solidly GOP turf. Collins, meanwhile, is not running for reelection in his Buffalo-area seat.

Bigger-picture, expect Democrats to be talking a lot about a culture of graft and corruption in D.C. — and how Trump and the GOP have made the swamp swampier. Democratic candidates, like Dean Phillips in the 3rd District, are mentioning the Collins and Hunter charges every chance they get.

The Trade War grinds on: the administration is rolling out a new round of tariffs, 25 percent duties on some $16 billion worth of goods from China like chemicals, motorcycles, and antennas. Beijing is expected to place equivalent counter-tariffs on U.S. imports.

The Wall Street Journal reports that there’s significant internal opposition to Trump’s plans to press ahead with tariffs on nearly half of all goods imported from China. More and more headlines, it seems, in mainstream press about the negative impact the tariffs are having on lots of different sectors of the economy. CNN reported on how Minnesota’s own Hormel Foods, creator of SPAM, is getting heartburn over the trade war.

One element of the trade story that’s flown under the radar: renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for which talks are ongoing. Reports are surfacing that U.S. negotiators are close to an unofficial “handshake deal” with officials for Mexico, which would be a relief for free-traders in the U.S., especially in agriculture.

POTUS is reportedly not happy with Jerome Powell, who he appointed to chair the Federal Reserve Bank, for raising interest rates. That and more from a newsy, finance-focused interview Trump did with Reuters.

The abduction and murder of an Iowa college student, Mollie Tibbetts, has been connected to an immigrant from Mexico, putting immigration politics to the fore months before a midterm election that Trump wants to make all about immigration. (The man’s lawyer says he is in the country legally.) But Republicans seized on the news to call for stricter immigration laws, from Trump down to congressional candidates in Minnesota, like Senate candidate Karin Housley and CD1 candidate Jim Hagedorn. Relatives of Tibbetts say they don’t want her death politicized. The Star Tribune has a story on how it’s playing in Minnesota.

Rep. Keith Ellison’s candidacy for attorney general and the allegations of abuse levied at him from an ex-girlfriend are creating problems for his fellow DFL candidates: the NYT reports on the Minnesota Democratic candidates who are being targeted by GOP-aligned groups for not calling on Ellison to step down.

Finally, a new poll from Suffolk University, released Wednesday, finds DFL Sen. Tina Smith up seven points on Housley in the general election battle for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Al Franken.

Other nuggets in that poll: Trump’s favorability rating is 18 points underwater in Minnesota, which lines up more or less with what an NBC/Marist poll found in July. Apparently, though, most Minnesotans can agree on one person: Sen. Amy Klobuchar who has a remarkable 65 percent approval rating in the state. Per Suffolk, she’s favored by more than 20 points over GOP challenger state Rep. Jim Newberger.

This week’s essential reads

Over the summer, we’ve learned that foreign entities are already interfering with the 2018 midterm elections. Federal officials have laid out nearly $400 million in funds for states to counter those efforts, but the election-protection slush fund may be too little, too late, reports ProPublica:

The Election Assistance Commission, the government agency charged with distributing federal funds to support elections, released a report Tuesday detailing how each state plans to spend a total of $380 million in grants allocated to improve and secure their election systems.

But even as intelligence officials warn of foreign interference in the midterm election, much of the money is not expected to be spent before Election Day. The EAC expects states to spend their allotted money within two to three years and gives them until 2023 to finish spending it.

Election experts have expressed skepticism that the money will be enough to modernize election equipment and secure it against state-sponsored cyber threats.

“Nationally, $380 million sounds like a huge amount of money, but in the context of what the election officials are needing to defend, replace, oversee and mitigate, it’s really not that much,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund.

There is a constant, 24/7 war on the internet to defend the honor of Donald Trump, and with a week of bad headlines for POTUS, MAGA’s foot soldiers were busier than ever. School yourself on Reddit’s most pro-Trump community, which Slate’s Justin Peters explores, to get a sense of how the president’s most online supporters are grappling with the week that was:

It was Tuesday afternoon and the great God-Emperor Donald Trump was under siege. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had been found guilty on eight federal charges at almost exactly the same time that his erstwhile attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to his own criminal charges and implicated as a co-conspirator an unnamed individual “who at that point had become the President of the United States.” The president’s many detractors were salivating, and even conservatives like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens were discussing the possibility of impeachment. Who would spring to his defense?

Enter r/The_Donald, the internet’s foremost support group for agoraphobic MAGA cosplayers. The_Donald is one of the more active subreddits on Reddit, and its members pride themselves on their readiness to defend the president’s honor even and especially when he doesn’t deserve it. On Tuesday afternoon, the habitués of The_Donald battled the Manafort and Cohen developments by heroically changing the subject. Those A1 stories were relegated to obscurity as users unleashed a barrage of similarly timed posts about the Mexican national who had recently been charged in connection with the death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts.

Photojournalists, like their colleagues in print, play a critical role in telling the story of the presidency. But, as WaPo’s David Nakamura writes, coaxing iconic shots out of the president’s mundane comings and goings requires creativity and lots and lots of planning. A great read with, of course, great photos:

Sunday at Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey offered an example of their ingenuity. A light rain had left small puddles on the tarmac of the tiny airport where the president’s 757 aircraft — the smaller of the two Boeing planes that are used as presidential transportation — was waiting to take President Trump and first lady Melania Trump back to Washington after a weekend at their private Bedminster resort.

Trump travels by helicopter, not motorcade, from Bedminster to the Morristown airport, so the 13-member White House press pool that typically accompanies him was brought to the airport nearly two hours ahead of his departure, giving the photographers time to consider their options for the best shot. Which is where the puddles came in.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, an Associated Press staff photographer assigned to the White House, appeared to notice them first, setting up a couple of  practice shots, playing with the reflection of Air Force One off the surface of the water.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Donald Trump’s presidency has made a lot of D.C. dwellers into unlikely household names. One of them is Adam Schiff, the California congressman who, as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is primed to play a central role in investigations into Trump-world’s ties with Russia.

In the California Sunday Magazine, Andy Kroll profiles Schiff, and how a little-known, mild-mannered guy from suburban Los Angeles became the face of Democratic opposition to Trump.

Before Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, Schiff was a respected if obscure member of Congress. In Washington, he had a reputation as an expert on national security and intelligence. People beyond the Beltway knew him, if they knew him at all, as the congressman with the Hollywood sign in his district or the one who shared a name with a beloved character on Law & Order. His admirers used words like “solid,” “reasonable,” and “mild-mannered.” If there was a knock on him, it was that he was too solid, too reasonable, and too mild-mannered. The kind of guy who at the end of a long day removes his tie but leaves his collar buttoned at the neck.

Then came Trump. For the past 18 months, as the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Schiff has played a leading part in the investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections and possible collusion with Trump and his aides and associates. At the same time, he has worked to fend off the efforts by his Republican colleagues and Trump’s media allies to derail the investigation. All this has vaulted Schiff into the unlikely role of being the Democrats’ leader not just on the investigation but on all things Trump and Russia. He has become a fixture on cable TV and the Sunday talk shows, distilling and explaining the latest developments in the marquee saga of the Trump presidency.

In accordance with the inside-out logic of the era, Schiff’s weaknesses have become his strengths. For many, he is the voice of reason, a steadying influence, the sober narrator in a time when chaos reigns, basic facts are under assault, and members of both parties resort to hyperbole and outrage to rile up the base. Strangers stop him on the street and at the airport and in the aisles of CVS to thank him. His Twitter following is rapidly approaching the 1-million mark, making him one of the most popular members of Congress on the platform. “There’s such a desire for something you can hang on to in the midst of these gale-force winds, and there’s a solidity to Schiff that is really appealing,” David Axelrod, the former adviser to Barack Obama, told me. “At a time when everything seems to be going crazy, there is a sense of bland is beautiful.”

What to look for next week

Expect more talk of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee whose confirmation hearings await after Labor Day. He’s continuing to meet with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Klobuchar, who sits on the Judiciary Committee where Kavanaugh will make his first stop. (Klobuchar has said before that she has “serious concerns” with the conservative judge’s record.)

Vice President Mike Pence will be back in Minnesota next Thursday, his second trip here this summer. Expect some more on that next week.

That said, next week will be a final, pre-Labor Day lull before Congress returns and campaign season ratchets up even further. Buckle up, folks, and enjoy the fair. Thanks for joining me, and get in touch at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/24/2018 - 04:23 pm.

    Trump’s spinning that Manafort was NOT convicted of ten of the eighteen felony counts and is thus still “a good guy” might be short-lived: One of the jurors in the Manafort trial has revealed, along with the jury forewoman’s notes that all the Not guilty verdicts were decided eleven-to-one, that the jurors tried again and again to present to the sole holdout, a woman, the documented proof of Manafort’s guilt. She adamantly refused to accept what the other eleven jurors had. So, to this jury which had some really solid Trump supporters on it who still could see facts, Manafort was guilty on all eighteen felony counts.

    The Mueller team might want to retry the case on those ten counts one woman refused to convict on. But, of course, they have the next Manafort trial coming up in a couple of weeks, and that one gets closer to the Russia connection. So, why waste time?

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 08/26/2018 - 09:46 am.

    Not one bit of Russian

    Involvement in the 18 charges against Manafort. Every charge was long before Manafort worked for Trump. BTW, in our judicial system, all it takes is one juror having reasonable doubt for a non guilty verdict.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/27/2018 - 08:07 am.

      Haven’t You Heard?

      These crooks are always getting off on technicalities. Law enforcement refers to it as “catch and release”.
      We really ought to get tough on these criminals, lock ’em up and throw away the key.

      It’s a horrible, disgusting situation! Absolutely disgraceful!

      Sad!

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