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The Plot Thickens Around Cohen's Bank Account

It has been widely publicized that just before the 2016 election, Donald Trump's all-purpose fixer, Michael Cohen, created an LLC called Essential Consultants. He used this shell company to pay $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford). A week ago, Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, announced that Novartis, AT&T, and an investment company controlled by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg paid large sums to this account. Now Ronan Farrow has dug up more information about this matter, some of it very suspicious.

One question that arose immediately after Avenatti's info dump was where Avenatti got the information. That has now been (somewhat) cleared up. Banks are required by law to report suspicious activity that might be related to money laundering, bribes, or other crimes to the Treasury Dept.'s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN). Thousands of law-enforcement officers have access to the database of the reports from the banks. One of them leaked it to Avenatti.

But the reason he or she leaked it is even more important than the leak. The report references two earlier suspicious activity reports about even more funny money (possibly as much as $3 million) that have been removed from the FINCEN database. The official said that it is unprecedented for a report to be removed from the FINCEN database and that only someone very high on the totem pole could have ordered that.

Furthermore, a substantial amount of the money seems to have ended up in Michael Cohen's personal account. The transfers from Essential Consultants to Cohen's account were flagged as possible signs of "bribery or gratuity" or use of a strawman account. The reason they were flagged is that Cohen misled First Republic Bank, where the Essential Consultants account is. He told the bank that it would be used for modest amounts of money relating to real estate transactions from U.S. sources. Wrong on all three. The transactions were not modest, had nothing to do with real estate, and involved foreign sources. David Murray, a former Treasury official, told Farrow: "There are a ton of red flags here."

In addition, Cohen used the Essential Consultants account to pay his bills, including those from American Express, AT&T, and Mercedes Benz. Using a bank account for a purpose wholly different than its stated purpose is bank fraud.

But it doesn't stop there. Other banks also noticed fishy stuff and reported it. Another piece of the puzzle is the deal worked out by Cohen in which the former deputy finance chairman of the RNC, Elliott Broidy, paid a former Playboy model $1.6 million to keep quiet about his impregnating her. Some of the money went through Essential Consultants. Broidy owns a company that has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts with the U.A.E. That someone very close to the finances of the Republican National Committee is deeply connected to a foreign government is, at best, unusual, and at worst, more than just unusual. The anonymous official who leaked the original information to Avenatti and then talked to Farrow said: "To say that I am terrified now would be an understatement." Speaking of understatements, how about this one: "Michael Cohen may shortly have some explaining to do to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York." (V)

Giuliani Keeps on Keepin' On

Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is creating plenty of headaches for the President. His current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, isn't doing much better. Appearing on "The Ingraham Angle," the counselor had a few interesting things to say about allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. First, that when it comes to looking for dirt on your political opponents, everyone does it. "When I ran, they were looking for dirt on me every day," he explained. "There is nothing illegal about that. Even if it comes from a Russian or a German or American, it doesn't matter." He also argued that the infamous meeting at Trump Tower with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya could not possibly be collusion, because nothing from that meeting was used during the campaign. "If there was collusion with the Russians, they would've used it," Giuliani announced.

Clearly, Giuliani is trying to play fixer here, given that on Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced their findings that the Russians did indeed interfere with the 2016 election, and that the Trump campaign did indeed try to acquire dirt from the Russians. However, there is much to say about the counselor's spin. First of all, Giuliani is right that it's commonplace to dig up dirt on one's political opponents. Heck, it's even commonplace to dig up dirt on oneself, just to be ready for what the other side might come up with. But if the folks who provide that information, whether "Russian or a German or American," are not compensated, and are not declared on disclosure forms, then that is an illegal campaign contribution. Maybe Giuliani does not know that, or maybe he's deliberately obfuscating, but there it is.

Beyond that, folks are again using the phrases "unforced error" and "Rudy Giuliani" in the same sentence, for the third or fourth time in as many weeks. Keeping in mind that "collusion" is not a specific crime that has a specific definition, his conclusions are essentially meaningless. However, what he has done—as he did with the payment to Stormy Daniels—is publicly admit that something potentially untoward happened, and then turn around and offer a silly defense for that untoward behavior. Essentially, his argument boils down to two things: "lots of people do it" and "we didn't get anything out of it, so no harm done." That might satisfy the base, but it's not going to get it done with a judge or a seasoned government prosecutor. Imagine if a person accused of attempted murder told the court that "lots of people do it," and "well, I didn't actually manage to kill the guy," and it becomes apparent how flimsy this is.

Finally—and see below for another example—Team Trump either does not realize, or does not care, how obviously they are trying to create one set of rules for themselves and a different set for everyone else. Recall that Rudy Giuliani just went on television and said there is nothing wrong, unusual, or illegal with gathering dirt on your opponents, even if you use foreign sources. He was speaking of the Veselnitskaya meeting, but he could just as easily have been describing...the Steele dossier. And the Trump administration has argued, over and over, that the Steele dossier is unethical and illegal, because it was an attempt to collect dirt, and because it came for a foreign source. In fact, Team Trump has even gone so far as to declare that the dossier is an act of collusion, because some of the information came from the Russians.

In the end, this is the problem with shooting from the hip all the time: You inevitably contradict (and often incriminate) yourself. Trump & Co. haven't paid a big price so far, but a time is coming that they will wish they had been more circumspect. (Z)

Avenatti: Two More Women May Have Gotten Hush Money from Trump

Yesterday, Michael Avenatti went on "Morning Joe" to announce that he is talking to two more women who claim to have had sex with Donald Trump and then to have been paid hush money to keep it quiet. He said that he is still verifying their claims, but if their stories check out and they decide to hire him, there will be more announcements and they could strengthen Stormy Daniels' case. If all of the NDAs "just happened" to be signed shortly before the election, it might begin to look fishy, or worse yet, like unreported campaign contributions in kind.

Some lawyers have criticized Avenatti, saying that all his tweets, TV appearances, and general publicity seeking do not help his client. However, Avenatti may well have a master plan. When a reporter once asked Steve Bannon about Trump's nondisclosure agreements with various women, Bannon replied that there were hundreds of them. That may have been an exaggeration, but if there were 10 or 20 and due to all the publicity, half a dozen women come to Avenatti, tell their stories, supply proof in some cases, and hire him, he will be in a much stronger position to win the defamation lawsuit Daniels filed against Trump. (V)

Bolton Is trying to Take Trump's Nobel Prize Away from Him

Donald Trump clearly (and desperately) wants a deal with North Korea. Any deal. It doesn't matter if it helps the United States or brings peace as long as it looks good on paper and he has a shot at getting a Nobel Peace Prize for pulling it off. However, a deal with North Korea is likely to happen over NSA John Bolton's dead body. Bolton has wildly opposed the North Koreans for decades, believes they cheat and lie about everything, and will oppose a deal with every ounce of strength he has. His greatest fear is a fake deal in which North Korea promises to denuclearize, invites inspectors to watch the destruction of its nuclear test site (which was destroyed by previous tests and is now useless anyway), and then secretly continues developing nuclear weapons while Trump basks in the glow of worldwide admiration.

Kim Jong Un seems to understand that (1) Trump wants a win, even if it is meaningless, and (2) Trump and Bolton are not on the same page. He is also taking advantage of Trump's ignorance on the subject of previous deals with North Korea, none of which they kept. To succeed and get concessions from the U.S. without actually giving up anything, he is going to try to drive a wedge between Trump and Bolton. One way he may be working on this is by playing nice with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. If Kim can arrange things so that it is Trump and Pompeo vs. Bolton, Kim might just be able to pull this off.

Needless to say, the situation is bizarre. U.S. presidents have dealt with dangerous and wily foreign adversaries before, but in all cases their first, second, and third priorities were what are the best interests of the United States, not their own personal glory. Trump may well get a deal, but whether the deal serves the interests of the country remains to be seen. For what it is worth, Trump is already negotiating via television, offering "strong protections" for Kim in any deal that might be made. Since the only thing Kim has done to earn this promise is threaten to walk away from the bargaining table, some would say that the North Korean leader is already negotiating circles around the President, aka the "world's greatest negotiator." (V)

Paul Ryan Has a Mess on His Hands

Broadly speaking, the Republican Party is anti-immigrant, and has elected a lot of officeholders on the basis of anti-immigrant platforms (including the fellow currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). However, not everyone within the GOP is anti-immigrant. Some of them—like, say, Jeff Denham (R-CA)—are going to need some non-white votes if they hope to keep their jobs in November. Others—like, say, Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)—are themselves immigrants or are the children of immigrants. Still others—like, say, David Trott (R-MI)—happen to think that immigrants add much more to the country than they take away.

A number of these House Republicans are tired of nothing being done to make progress on the immigration issue, and many of them are unenthusiastic about facing the voters while the Dreamers twist in the wind. Consequently, in consultation with the Democrats, a group of moderate Republicans has come up with four pieces of legislation that they want to be brought to a vote. The different bills would preserve DACA at different levels; the most liberal of them would give amnesty to the Dreamers and offer them a path to citizenship. The effort is being led by Denham and Curbelo, and thus far 20 Republicans have signed on to the effort, with Trott becoming the latest on Thursday. This is despite the fact that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has threatened, pleaded, and cajoled the members of his caucus in order to try and compel them not to get involved. If just five more Republicans climb on board (along with all the Democrats in the House), then the bills will be brought to a vote using the same parliamentary maneuver that Senate Democrats used earlier this week to force a vote on net neutrality. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing elements of the GOP coalition, particularly the Freedom Caucusers, are not happy, and have their own DACA proposal. Theirs would renew the Dreamers for just three years, and would provide no path to citizenship. To increase their leverage, these folks are holding hostage a farm bill that the GOP leadership badly wants to get passed.

This whole scenario is, in many ways, Paul Ryan's worst nightmare. An extended debate about DACA and immigration in the House will be a killer, serving either to aggravate the anti-immigrant base, or pro-immigrant voters in swing districts, or both. In an effort to satiate the right wingers (and to save the farm bill), the Speaker has tentatively agreed to bring their bill up for a vote, but he's desperately trying to negotiate a situation where at least one of the more moderate options is also voted upon. If he can't wangle an agreement, the moderates will likely scrape together the five more supporters they need, thus defying and embarrassing Ryan. It's the kind of thing that makes a fellow who is retiring anyhow think about throwing in the towel a bit early.

Meanwhile, this is also a looming disaster for Donald Trump. If a moderate bill somehow gets through the House, which is very possible, then it will be the Senate's turn. There is a very good chance it will clear that hurdle, particularly if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) decides it is necessary in order to try and save Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who's definitely going to need some Latino votes. At that point, the bill would head to the White House, and Trump would be in a real pickle. He's called over and over for bipartisanship and for a solution to DACA, and in this scenario, he'd have both of those things. But it would also be a bill that he literally had nothing to do with, which would not exactly make him look like a strong leader. He hates that. Even worse, if he puts his signature on such a measure, the headlines on Breitbart and InfoWars would be instantaneous: "No wall, but amnesty for millions!" The base would be furious, in other words. It's the kind of thing that makes a fellow think about lobbing a nuke at Iran or North Korea, just to create a distraction. (Z)

White House Demands Apology

On Wednesday, Donald Trump held a round table meeting with California officials on the subject of immigration. And during that meeting, he declared:

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we're stopping a lot of them, but we're taking people out of the country, you wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals, and we're taking them out of the country at a rate that's never happened before.

Taken in the context of the conversation, the President was ostensibly referring to gang members and MS-13, one of his favorite bugaboos. However, that was far from crystal clear, and so his verbiage became national news. Particularly since this is hardly the only time Trump has used this kind of language, from the speech announcing his campaign ("They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.") to his slurring of Haiti and African countries as s**tholes. The White House is angry at the coverage that the President's remarks got, however. Their position is that it is obvious Trump meant MS-13, and that anyone who wrote otherwise was deliberately trying to stir up a hornet's nest. Consequently, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway is now making the rounds and demanding that Trump receive an apology.

This brings to mind several thoughts. First, when grading undergraduate essays, as Z does on a near-daily basis, students who express their thoughts in an unclear or imprecise fashion get graded down. What they do not get is an apology. Surely it is fair to hold the President to at least as high a standard as a university undergrad. Second, a good general rule this White House should strongly consider: Don't refer to anyone as "animals," even when referencing bad citizens like gang members. Such verbiage veers far too close to bigotry and stereotypes of past and present, wherein black folks were slurred as apes and gorillas, Asians as snakes, Jews as dogs, and the like. If it is absolutely necessary to slur some group of not nice people, then something like "scum" or "losers" or "jerks" is preferable, because at least those terms don't carry racist connotations. Third, as with the "rules of collusion" (see above), this is another case of one set of rules for Team Trump, another set for everyone else. If the administration wants an apology, then the first thing they need to do is apologize to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for joking about his terminal cancer. Until such time as that happens, Conway will need to dismount from her high horse. (Z)

Who Can Call Trump Directly?

The New York magazine article that talked about how Donald Trump's addiction to Fox News and his bromance with Sean Hannity developed also has another nugget that's now getting some attention: A (partial?) list of folks who may call the President any time, and have their calls put through immediately. His two adult sons are on the list, and it's generally assumed his other family members are there, too. Beyond the relatives, however, is this quintet:

  • Hannity
  • Billionaire businessman (hedge funds) Stephen Schwarzman
  • Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch
  • Billionaire businessman (real estate) Tom Barrack
  • Patriots owner Robert Kraft

In short, it's a list full of the sorts of people whose approval Trump has craved for decades: successful businessmen, media moguls, and an NFL owner (Trump tried multiple times to buy an NFL team, and was rejected). Not coincidentally, the people on the list are also generally known for fawning over and flattering the President.

It's possible that there are other people on the list. And it's possible (though not too likely) that at least one or two of them are not yes men (or yes women) and might actually give some critical feedback when needed. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who is successful, knowledgeable, and generally personable, but who also has no issue speaking truth to power. He's met with the President twice so far, and on Thursday a clip leaked in which Gates tells the staffers at his foundation that during each of the two meetings, he had to explain to the President the difference between HPV and HIV. Both diseases are sometimes transmitted sexually but, as Gates artfully observes, they "are rarely confused with each other." Trump would likely get a lot of benefit out of regular phone chats with Gates, even if they are brief, and even if that means cutting down the Hannity calls to only three or four a day. (Z)

Candidates for Office in Florida Are Already Campaigning Hard--in Puerto Rico

Candidates for public office in Florida not only have to hit Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, but also San Juan, Puerto Rico. There are well over a million Puerto Ricans in Florida and candidates for office there have to show they care about the island, especially after Donald Trump visited, threw a few paper towels at the crowd, and left. A visit to the island—especially if some mainland reporters come along—can show the Puerto Ricans in Florida (who are U.S. citizens and can vote) that you are concerned about them. For example, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) recently visited San Juan. So have House candidates. Given that Florida elections are often decided by a point or two, getting Puerto Ricans in Florida to vote for you can make the difference between winning and losing. Even if members of Congress have very little to do with setting American policy toward the territory.

The importance of Puerto Rican voters has not been lost on Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), who wants Nelson's job. He has visited the island five times since Hurricane Maria leveled it. As governor, he has also opened centers around the state to help new arrivals from Puerto Rico. It is already paying off for him: He has gotten the endorsement from Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in the House, Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican. On the other hand, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D-PR) has introduced Nelson as "a friend," "a great friend," and "the best friend Puerto Rico has" on his visits there. As the election gets closer, expect both Nelson and Scott to visit the island many more times. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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