• Trump (and Georgia) On My Mind

    May 14, 2022 // 2 Comments »

    One of my kids is studying law, and I’ve read a bit over her shoulder as she prepped for exams. Two critical things stand out: unlike in literature, words in the law have very specific meanings (lie, fraud, possess, assault), and intent matters quite a bit. The latter is very important, because people say things all the time they do not mean, such as “If Joe in Sales misses that deadline I’m gonna kill someone.” No one’s life is actually in danger, we all understand. Same for all those neighbors who were going to but never did move to Costa Rica if Trump was elected.

    Misunderstanding words as moving from the general to the very specific when you pull them out of a conversation and try to bring them to court, and determining intent based on what you “believe,” are really at the root of the ever-growing string of failed legal actions against Trump (there are some 19 still pending.) We have, and this is just hitting the highlights, all of Russiagate, the Mueller Report, Impeachment I, Impeachment II, Stormy Daniels, failed accusations of real estate valuation fraud in New York and most recently, a grand jury seated to look into election fraud in Georgia.

    For example, in Impeachment I, the Ukraine caper, the entire brouhaha hinged on Donald Trump’s own words in the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president. But did they mean Trump was demanding foreign interference in the 2020 election? Or was he asking an ally to run down unethical actions by Joe Biden as a public service before he might become president? What was Trump’s intention when he said “A lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.” Later in the call Trump suggested some aid to Ukraine might be withheld, though not in specific reference to any investigation into Biden.

    The people who brought the impeachment proceedings decided all that constituted an illegal solicitation of a foreign in-kind contribution to Trump’s re-election campaign, maybe even extortion. The allegation was referred to the Justice Department, which declined charges. Many Democrats though that unfair, failing to see the lack of anything coming of it (i.e., no investigation by Ukraine), the lack of anything withheld (the aid was eventually delivered) and overall the lack of intent to commit a crime by Trump. The legal definition tests for words like solicit and extort were not met and Justice correctly dumped the case and there was no conviction in the Senate.

    Same story in New York, where the facts seemed to support Trump valued real estate at a lower price for tax purposes and a higher price when used as loan collateral. It’s called valuation and is legally done all the time. But some decided saying one thing to one person and another to another person to gain something was “fraud,” and everyone pursuing the case forgot that they also had to prove intent, that Trump lied with the intention to commit a crime and gain by ill begotten methods. The case rightfully collapsed.

    Yep, same with the Stormy Daniels saga, where the facts seemed to be Trump, via Michael Cohen, paid money to Stormy to keep quiet about their affair. Sleazy enough, but paying someone as part of a non-disclosure agreement is not illegal. It would be a crime if the money was paid by Trump with the intent of influencing an election, which he suggested was not true, the cash-for-silence was maybe to protect his marriage. Campaign finance laws require proof a person was willfully violating the law. Prosecutors would have to demonstrate that willingness by Trump alongside showing his principal goal was to influence the election. If this kind of case would have ever reached court, Trump would have simply denied intent.

    Another example can be found in the incitement allegations surrounding the speech Trump made just before his supporters entered the Capitol building January 6. A democracy can’t lock up everyone who stirs up a crowd. Speech which inspires, motivates, or warms the blood cannot be illegal as it is the very stuff of democracy. Trump thought the election was unfair and had a right to say so. Brandenburg v. Ohio refined the modern standard to 1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encourages the use of violence or lawless action; 2) the speaker intends their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and 3) imminent violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. Brandenburg is the Supreme Court’s gold standard on what government may do about speech that seeks to incite others to lawlessness.

    The key is always intent. You have to prove, not just speculate, the speaker wanted to cause violence. Listeners’ reaction to speech is not alone a basis for taking action against a speaker. You’d need to prove Trump wanted the crowd to attack the Capitol and set out to find the words to make that happen. It ain’t gonna fly for the January 6 Committee.

    Which brings us to Georgia, where the NYT asks “Will Trump Face a Legal Reckoning in Georgia?”  On January 2, 2020, facing an election loss, Trump called Georgia’s Secretary of State to demand he “find 11,780 votes,”  one more than Joe Biden’s tally. Did Trump encourage the secretary to commit election fraud? That prosecution will fail, as did all of the ones above, for the same two reasons: words are not solely what they seem, and intent is hard to prove.

    For example, to the Democratic lay person “find” means commit election fraud to come up with votes. But well before anything goes to court, it will be made clear that “find” in this context can also mean, in just one example, recount all legal ballots to see if a mistake can be found which legitimately sends more votes to Trump. The other issue is again intent; to prove solicitation of election fraud, Georgia law requires a person intentionally “solicits, requests, commands, importunes or otherwise attempts to cause” another person to engage in election fraud. Trump and his associates need only to maintain they meant “find” as in recount, not as in cheat. Case closed.

    In seeing the same mistakes made over and over, you’d start to think maybe the Democrats need some better lawyers. But don’t worry. Democratic lawyers know just as well as Republican lawyers none of these cases ever had a chance in a real court. Their purpose was purely political, to manufacture some headlines, to influence voters, to create the impression Trump has to be guilty of something if only he could be stopped from wriggling away. The goal is to convince voters to ignore the rule of law and take matters into their own hands in 2024 to stop Trump.

    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Is Michael Cohen Impeachment’s Smoking Gun?

    March 1, 2019 // 11 Comments »


    While 8000 miles away in Vietnam the president of the United States practices nuclear diplomacy, Americans at home watched former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen stand up on his hind legs to beg for a reduced jail sentence.

    Cohen, testifying on February 27 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform (he testified behind closed doors on Tuesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he will go back behind closed doors Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee), told Americans who think they already know what they think exactly what they wanted to hear: Trump is a vulgar conman, a racist, and a cheat. None of that is impeachable or criminal. Also, water is wet.

    The media is burying the lede: Michael Cohen did not provide any evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, nor did he provide any evidence of collusion, active coordination or conspiracy with Wikileaks. Cohen’s accusation of a Trump crime while in office is at best an evidence-free rendering of an unclear violation of a campaign finance law usually settled with a fine. Any action going forward using Cohen’s testimony requires one to simply believe the words of Michael Cohen. That’s a big ask.

    Building a criminal case, or impeachment, around the uncorroborated testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon violating attorney-client privilege to beg for a shorter sentence seems weak. Absent corroborating evidence it is hard to see Cohen’s testimony leading to impeachment or criminal charges. It all sounds very dramatic and will be played as such by the media, but in the end is another faux smoking gun. There’s just not much meat on these bones.

     

    On Russian collusion, Cohen stated “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.” Cohen went on to claim he saw Don, Jr. tell his father some meeting had been set. “I concluded that Don, Jr. was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary with the Russian representative when he walked behind his dad’s desk that day.” Cohen presented no evidence the meeting Don, Jr. referred to was with the Russians, or maybe was with the guy redoing Trump’s kitchen. A defense lawyer would be laughing as she labeled Cohen’s “conclusion” speculation and uncorroborated supposition.

    The best the Democratic questioners drag out of Cohen over the course of over seven hours was “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone,” when asked directly if Trump worked with Russia. Cohen did later deny the existence of the pee tape and anything else that could be used as blackmail. Not much to work with. Russiagate comes down to some Trump people noodling around in Moscow about a hotel that was never built, talking about meetings with Putin that never took place? Your big takeaway is Trump was asking about that inside his own organization until June instead of giving up following the progress earlier? That’s what you want to take to the American people as a case for impeachment, with Michael Cohen in an orange jumpsuit on a prison pass as your key witness?

     

    On business in Russia, Cohen claims Trump was “lying to the American people” during his campaign about negotiations to build a hotel in Moscow. Leaving aside there is nothing illegal about negotiating to build a hotel, and that neither Cohen nor anyone else has shown any evidence of all the Putin connections the media keeps insisting must exist. A review of Trump’s statements show what Cohen claims are “lies to the American people” about whether or not Trump had “business” in Russia would be seen by a defense lawyer as careful parsing of words; Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley concludes after his own parsing at worst Trump mislead by omission and even that requires one to dig into tweets where Trump used the present tense and not the past tense to describe things.

     

    On Stormy Daniels, Cohen showed a check for $35,000 from Trump to him, which was supposedly part of the total $130k paid to her to keep quiet about Trump and Stormy’s affair. The check does not show what the payment was for. The check does not have Stormy’s name on it. Cohen said it was part of the reimbursement for “illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.” A defense lawyer would chuckle at the idea that was “evidence.” It is a receipt for a crime only because Cohen now says it is. Under direct questioning, Cohen claimed there was no corroborating evidence beyond the 11 checks. He said he sent invoices to Trump for “legal retainer fees,” so don’t bother with the invoices as evidence because Cohen now says he lied on them claiming it was a retainer fee. Those 11 checks will total over $400k, because supposedly Trump rolled Cohen’s fee and bonus into the amount, so we just have to take his word for it that some of that money was for Stormy. Cohen said some of the checks were signed by Don, Jr. and the Trump Organization’s CFO. Apparently the checks are going to be used to implicate personally a person who did not sign the checks.

    Paying money as part of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is not illegal. If Trump had been just a businessperson who had an affair, there would be nothing to discuss. People legally pay other people to be quiet all the time. Legal services such as Cohen otherwise provided are a standing campaign cost (lawyers regularly obtaining discreet resolutions of issues that threaten the interests of their clients.) The alleged illegality comes from the supposition by Cohen that he can speak to Trump’s intent, that the NDA was not, say, to spare Trump’s marriage from new embarrassment, but in the text of the law “for the principal purpose of influencing an election” amid everyone already knowing Trump was a serial philanderer. Campaign finance laws require proof a person was willfully violating the law. Cohen’s testimony does not prove Trump knew the payments he was making were illegal. Prosecutors would have to prove that willingness somehow if they wanted to charge the president.

    Even then, that would make Trump at worst a conspirator to a contested interpretation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. At worst it is a de minimis legal violation the serious business of impeachment isn’t concerned with. It is hard to imagine impeachment hearings bogging down looking into intricacies of federal election law that otherwise confound second year law students.

     

    On Trump ordering Cohen to lie to Congress, Cohen said “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations… he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.” Cohen later referred to some sort of Trump “code” that was used to order him to lie.

     

    On Wikileaks, Cohen stated “In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Someone will need NSA intercepts to prove this true because Stone and Wikileaks deny it, and Cohen says there were no others present to corroborate.

    The question left aside is so what. In the larger picture, it represents limited passive knowledge on Trump’s part the emails will leak, as Cohen said Stone had no details on the upcoming content. It does not say the Russians did anything, it does not say Trump worked with Wikileaks. Stone, of course, is habitually full of crap. He had previously lied about having dinner with Assange. Even if the call was made, it remains a real likelihood Stone was overselling his access to Wikileaks. Julian Assange is a hard guy to get on the phone and would have no incentive to tip off a partisan hack like Stone and risk soiling his claims to non-partisanship. Even the New York Times has questioned how trustworthy Stone is.

    Cohen said the phone call took place July 18 or 19. Trump could have read on Twitter July 7 that Wikileaks had pending releases. Earlier, the Guardian on June 12, 2016, where Assange announced he’d be releasing more Clinton emails. The newspaper stated the emails will “provide further ammunition for Donald Trump, her Republican presidential rival, who has used the issue to attack her.” The Stone call, if it took place, was based on public knowledge. Pretty much anyone with a pulse in Washington anticipated more Wikileaks releases that summer of 2016. Cohen’s bombshell had been available online for almost three years.

    The emerging media bleat Trump lied in writing to Mueller about contact with Stone and thus, if Cohen is believed, committed perjury, is based solely on unconfirmed anonymous “sources.” No one outside the White House and Mueller’s office knows what Trump wrote in answer to the special prosecutor’s written interrogatories.

     

    So this is it? A saga that began in the summer of 2016, one that commanded a Special Prosecutor to investigate if the Russian government worked with the current president of the United States to help him get elected, that claimed that president was a Russian intelligence asset under the control of Putin, is going to hinge on the minutiae of campaign finance law? That is going to be lawyered into something leading to impeachment?

    As for the hearing itself, Democrats spent the day putting inflammatory words into Cohen’s mouth that he gratefully voiced to make good quotes. They focused on questions of Trump’s finances which will no doubt provide the hook for exposing Trump’s taxes. Republicans spent the time calling Cohen dishonest. Neither side distinguished themselves but gratefully no one on the dais made any specific Godfather movie references. The new POC Democrats in the House called most everyone else racists and made little virtuous speechlets.

    Cohen, for his part, referred to himself more than once as the son of a Holocaust survivor and sought victimhood throughout the hearing because he will miss his family while in jail. Cohen hurt his own credibility on multiple occasions claiming not to understand simple questions just as time ran out, allowing him to dodge responding. Chairman Cummings abetted this via his on-and-off again aggressive enforcement of time limits. Cohen refused to say he’d dedicate the millions he will most certainly make off book deals and commentary roles to charity, further reducing his credibility. He dangled he had hundreds of tapes of something, but produced none. Heaven help us when #BelieveCohen starts trending.

    It was going to be Comey’s testimony that took Trump down, then Papadopoulos was going to flip, or maybe Manafort or Flynn. There were tapes of something, a Russian spy with red hair who would roll over. Books by Comey and Clapper blowing the roof off things, the walls closing in again and again and again. And soon it will be Mueller time! Or may Southern District of New York time, because the media seems to be prepping us Mueller may not have much to say.

    It is all exhausting. We’ll soon enough see if voters feel like a dog with a mean owner always holding out a Scooby treat he’ll never let go of. Sooner or later that dog might say, I’m either gonna bite that SOB, or just get bored and stop giving him the satisfaction of salivating around him.

    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump