Mueller’s probe unearths liars sur­round­ing Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Dan Balz [email protected]­

As spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III moves to­ward the sum­ma­tion of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion — and what­ever his even­tual re­port pro­duces — there is no es­cap­ing the sleaze fac­tor that ex­isted around Pres­i­dent Trump be­fore and dur­ing his cam­paign for the White House in 2016.

It was there in the pres­ence of Paul Manafort, who ar­rived at the cam­paign in the spring of 2016 and lasted un­til em­bar­rass­ing and con­tin­ued dis­clo­sures about his past work with pro-Rus­sian of­fi­cials in Ukraine forced him to step aside, and whose re­cent plea agree­ment was tossed out this past week be­cause pros­e­cu­tors say he has con­tin­ued to lie to them.

It was there in the pres­ence of Michael Co­hen, Trump’s long­time per­sonal lawyer and fixer, who did the deals and ar­ranged the pay­offs that were de­signed to sup­press dam­ag­ing al­le­ga­tions about Trump and other women dur­ing the fi­nal months of the cam­paign and whose new guilty plea about ly­ing to Con­gress has put re­newed fo­cus on the pres­i­dent’s words and ac­tions.

It was there in the pres­ence of Roger Stone, a prac­ti­tioner of the dark arts of pol­i­tics and a one­time busi­ness part­ner with Manafort, who acted over the years as a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser and con­fi­dant to Trump and whose ap­par­ent knowl­edge of leaks of emails dam­ag­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign has put him in the crosshairs of the Mueller team.

It was there in the pres­ence of Rick Gates, Manafort’s busi­ness part­ner, who con­tin­ued in the Trump cam­paign af­ter Manafort had departed and who had par­tic­i­pated with Manafort in a se­ries of fraud­u­lent mon­ey­laun­der­ing schemes and other es­capades that came to light thanks to Mueller’s team of pros­e­cu­tors.

It was there in the pres­ence of Jerome Corsi, an in­vet­er­ate right-wing con­spir­acy the­o­rist, whose state­ments to pros­e­cu­tors about the leaks of Demo­cratic and Clin­ton cam­paign emails via Wik­iLeaks pro­duced a draft plea agree­ment for ly­ing that he ul­ti­mately re­fused to sign, leav­ing him still dan­gling for fu­ture le­gal ac­tion.

It was even there in the pres­ence of Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, the low-level for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to the cam­paign cur­rently serv­ing a two-week prison sen­tence for ly­ing to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors, who sought to lever­age his ac­cess within the cam­paign to ag­gran­dize him­self in the eyes of for­eign diplo­mats and oth­ers.

No one yet knows where all this will ul­ti­mately lead or when it will end, in terms of the le­gal jeop­ardy for th­ese and oth­ers who have been caught up in the Mueller’s web. But the taw­dri­ness fac­tor alone with this rogues’ gallery of char­ac­ters is enough to put the lie to Trump’s claim of hir­ing “only the best” to ad­vise him in busi­ness or gov­ern­ment.

Col­lec­tively, you can’t make it up. Which is why there is again so much fo­cus on the pres­i­dent as cen­tral to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump has suf­fered through other bad mo­ments since Mueller was ap­pointed to in­ves­ti­gate the role Rus­sia played in the 2016 elec­tion and the de­gree to which there was co­op­er­a­tion, col­lu­sion, con­spir­acy, ad­vance knowl­edge or any other kind of in­volve­ment by any­one as­so­ci­ated with the Trump cam­paign. By any mea­sure, the past week ranks as one of the worst for the pres­i­dent.

What is strik­ing at this point, al­though not a sur­prise given past his­to­ries and the peo­ple in­volved, is the moun­tain of ly­ing that has taken place. If Co­hen’s ad­mis­sion that he lied to Con­gress is cor­rob­o­rated by ad­di­tional ev­i­dence from ma­te­ri­als seized from his of­fice or tes­ti­mony, the pres­i­dent has long been ly­ing about his busi­ness ven­tures in Rus­sia, es­pe­cially when he was a can­di­date in 2016 and went soft on Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. And as Co­hen’s plea makes clear, oth­ers have been ly­ing on Trump’s be­half.

As he left the White House on Thurs­day for the Group of 20 meet­ing in Ar­gentina, the pres­i­dent said Co­hen is now ly­ing about hav­ing lied to Con­gress. He also said that, even if he did what Co­hen said, what does it mat­ter? He was a busi­ness­man while he was a can­di­date.

Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani, one of the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal le­gal ad­vis­ers, has said re­peat­edly that Co­hen has lied for years. Why did Trump keep as his per­sonal lawyer some­one whose word was so un­trust­wor­thy for so many years? Be­cause, Trump said, “a long time ago he did me a fa­vor.” Ap­par­ently, for Trump, a past trans­ac­tion over­rode ques­tions of hon­esty and in­tegrity in the se­lec­tion of a per­sonal at­tor­ney. Is that be­liev­able?

Whether Co­hen’s lat­est con­fes­sion con­tra­dicts the pres­i­dent’s writ­ten an­swers to Mueller is, of course, of great in­ter­est and im­por­tance. Mueller and his team know the an­swer by now.

Gi­u­liani has said that noth­ing Co­hen is now say­ing con­tra­dicts what Trump said in his fil­ing to the spe­cial coun­sel. Which then begs the ques­tion of why Trump is ac­cus­ing Co­hen of ly­ing now, un­less Trump’s an­swer to the spe­cial coun­sel about any ef­forts to make a deal with the Rus­sians was so vague, so an­o­dyne, so full of caveats that it could pro­tect him against all con­tin­gen­cies no mat­ter how much Co­hen’s tes­ti­mony has changed.

The web of lies thrown up by the char­ac­ters who were most prominent in the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion this past week is dif­fi­cult to over­state, al­though per­haps easy to dis­miss as typ­i­cal, given their his­to­ries. In any crim­i­nal case like this, tar­gets of the pros­e­cu­tors and some of the even­tual wit­nesses for the pros­e­cu­tion are rarely saints. They come with their own bag­gage, which must be weighed by jurors.

That was the case when Gates tes­ti­fied against Manafort and was con­fronted dur­ing cros­sex­am­i­na­tion by Manafort’s lawyers with his own his­tory of ly­ing and fraud. Yet in the end, Manafort was con­victed on most counts in that case, lead­ing him to cut a deal with pros­e­cu­tors ahead of a sec­ond trial, a deal now on the rocks be­cause of more lies.

The flurry of ac­tiv­ity over the past week has high­lighted the var­i­ous pieces that Mueller and his team are work­ing and the de­gree that they could in­volve Trump di­rectly. The con­nec­tion is Trump and Rus­sia. The pres­i­dent’s state­ment to the New York Post that a par­don for Manafort is not off the ta­ble adds to the other ele­ment for the in­ves­ti­ga­tors to as­sess.

There will be more sur­prises ahead from the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice, which must worry those now feel­ing the glare from the Mueller team. There also will be more ev­i­dence of ly­ing — which is to be ex­pected given the un­sa­vory band of ac­tors who are at the cen­ter of it all.


Roger Stone’s ap­par­ent knowl­edge of leaks of emails dam­ag­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign has put him in the crosshairs of the spe­cial coun­sel’s team. Stone is seen on Capi­tol Hill last year.

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