Scandal piles on scandal for United States President Donald Trump. But there's a view that Stormy Daniels poses more of a threat than the Russia investigation.
This is partly informed by doubts that Mueller will deliver the goods. For months, the conventional wisdom has been that he must be sitting on material explosive enough to blow Trump out of the White House. There was an element of wishful thinking behind this assumption, which the scrupulous discretion of Mueller’s team encouraged: they’re being so careful because they know where this is going.
That confidence evaporated somewhat after the New York Times published a list of four dozen questions that Mueller wants to ask Trump in the event the President consents to be interviewed. There were no bombshells, nothing to indicate Mueller has found a smoking gun. One’s instinct was that Trump would simply respond with a particularly florid counterblast of faux indignation, mendacity and whataboutism and challenge Mueller to find meaty morsels amongst the verbal spaghetti.
Even if Mueller does assemble a damning case, what does he do with it? A long-standing Department of Justice legal finding holds that presidents can’t be charged with a crime while they’re in office, although some constitutional lawyers believe otherwise. Mueller could send a report to Congress, but then the ball would be in the politicians’ court. Many congressional Republicans have committed such derelictions of duty on Trump’s behalf that they resemble Macbeth, “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Or, if your taste runs more toward Van Morrison than the Bard, “It’s too late to stop now!”
(We have very little idea how Mueller himself sees the investigation playing out, since the main source of information, albeit unverified, on the special counsel’s thinking and timeline is Trump’s legal point man, former New York mayor and drastically loose cannon Rudy Giuliani.)
Finally, there’s the fear that Trump and his surrogates are laying the groundwork for shutting down the investigation, in the belief he can ride out the subsequent storm. Their confidence is based on the conviction that the whole Russia issue has become so infected with partisanship that Congress and the country at large will simply dig in on either side of the political divide.
The vice squad
The civil lawsuit directed at Trump by porn star Stormy Daniels and her attorney, publicity hound and accomplished provocateur Michael Avenatti, and the investigation of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen are, so the argument goes, different kettles of fish: open-ended and transparent exercises, without guidelines or time constraints, that can’t be shut down and aren’t easily framed as being politically motivated.
Daniels is seeking release from the non-disclosure agreement (NDA), negotiated by Cohen before the 2016 election, which prevents her from talking about her affair with Trump.
She argues the NDA is null and void because Trump never signed it, besides which it has been overtaken by events. Proceedings are on hold while the authorities decide whether to lay criminal charges against Cohen.
Daniels is also suing Trump for defamation; he accused her of lying when she claimed to have been subjected to threats and intimidation.
Politico contributor John Culhane, a professor at Widener University Delaware Law School, points out that if the court decides civil litigation has sufficient merit to get past a motion to dismiss, there will be discovery. Discovery enables the plaintiff to apply for all manner of documents and other evidence relating to the claim. It was via this process, says Culhane, that the tobacco industry was finally held accountable for the damage done by its products: “Countless cases have demonstrated that the goodies unearthed in that litigation can detonate, exploding cigar-style, on entire industries.”
Discovery may demonstrate that Daniels is just the tip of the viceberg – New York’s Paul Campos this month laid out the intriguing theory that an NDA Cohen negotiated with Playboy’s Miss November 2010, supposedly on behalf of a wealthy Republican loyalist, was in fact also for Trump’s benefit. But one suspects the President can survive anything adult entertainers throw at him. After all, he was elected despite admitting a propensity for sexual assault and has long revelled in his largely self-created image as a compulsive womaniser. In 1997, a few months after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Trump agreed on air with the proposition that he could have “nailed” her (providing, he added charmingly, she’d passed an HIV test).
Hyperion to a sater?
The situation of Cohen, whose Manhattan office and hotel room were raided by agents dispatched by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York on April 9, is interesting on two counts: first, you’d assume getting a judge to sign off on a search warrant for the sitting President’s personal lawyer would require compelling evidence of wrongdoing; second, Cohen was seen and saw himself as Trump’s fixer.
As New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on Russian meddling and the aftermath, told Slate, “Trump ran a business that sometimes had a seedy underbelly. You have to assume there are things that [Cohen] knew about.” So now we wait to see if Cohen “flips” – co-operates with prosecutors to avoid or reduce jail time. As Haberman said, “You don’t flip unless there’s something to flip on.”
But in the Trump Show, all plot strands lead to Moscow. The New York prosecutors were acting on a referral from Mueller, whose investigators had discovered that Cohen was handsomely paid by an investment firm linked to a Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin crony, seemingly for nothing more than being Trump’s personal lawyer.
A recent BuzzFeed story claims that during the election campaign, Cohen and boyhood friend Felix Sater were in Moscow trying to get a Trump Tower off the ground there. (Both Cohen and Trump have stated the latter’s business activities in Russia began and ended with the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.)
Sater’s family emigrated from Russia to the US via Israel. The FBI believes his father, Mikhail Sheferovsky, was an underboss for the Russian mafia’s “boss of bosses” Semion Mogilevich, who lives freely in Moscow despite being on many Western nations’ most-wanted lists. Sater has been a consultant for Trump companies. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to involvement in a $58 million stock-fraud scheme orchestrated by the Russian mafia. He’d previously spent 15 months in prison for slashing a commodities broker’s face with the stem of a margarita glass. In 2015, Sater emailed Cohen to say, “Our boy can become president and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.”
Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who defected to the West, claimed Mogilevich and Putin have been close since the early 1990s. Litvinenko, who coined the term “mafia state,” was murdered by polonium poisoning in London in 2006. A 2015 public inquiry concluded Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB operation that was “probably” personally approved by Putin, about whom, mysteriously, Trump won’t hear a bad word said.
This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.