Abbreviated Pundit Round-up: Mueller-nalysis, Epstein injustice, seeking something better

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Trump–Russia

David Von Drehle on the common thread between Trump’s common criminals
Washington Post

The many modes of mendacity inside the Trump circle would be amusing if the team were not in possession of the nuclear launch codes. Allowing any of these people to give sworn testimony is like handing a fork to a toddler and pointing her toward an electrical outlet. Foreign policy advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, campaign operative Rick Gates, attorney Michael Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, international go-between Alex van der Zwaan, Russian fixer Konstantin Kilimnik: The list is so long, it feels like an Oscars speech. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is now in double-dutch because prosecutors say he lied when he promised to stop lying.

They lie because lying has always worked for them. For some, like Manafort and Trump, lying absolutely defines their lives. It’s literally what they do for a living.

Whatever he said (we’ll likely learn the details via future indictments), Flynn’s candor earned him a Get Out of Jail Free card. Cohen was not so lucky last week.

Trump’s longtime lawyer, intimidator, message-bearer and mop-up man, Cohen has allegedly tried to find a middle ground between lying and honesty. He has apparently come clean about conspiring with “Individual-1,” the pseudonym with a tsunami comb-over, to violate campaign finance laws while buying the silence of alleged paramours. But the federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District require the full monty: a clean breast of all crimes ever committed, abetted or witnessed. Cohen declined to be so forthcoming. (Where to begin?)

Rebecca Solnit on how Trump’s luck is running out
The Guardian

The news is generally reported piecemeal, with a focus on what just happened or the specifics of one story. The result is that the cumulative effect often escapes detection. Journalism tends to describe the fragments and not the pattern they make up, which for readers can be like watching a movie shot entirely in closeups. So it is with the travails of Donald J Trump. He is in so many kinds of legal hot water, and the explosive new stories tend to erase the earlier ones from view, just as his own transgressions tend to overshadow his earlier misconduct.

At this point there are a lot of things that have popped up in the news, caused momentary gasps, then seemed to vanish under the weight of the next shocker. But just because something has slipped from the headlines doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. And doesn’t mean that Trump can’ drown under the total weight of his crimes.

Who talks of how grotesquely he groveled before Vladimir Putin and denied his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions in the long-ago, far-away world of July 2018 when so much has happened since? Who remembers the abrupt firing of the FBI director James Comey in the ancient days of May 2017, when the abrupt firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on 7 November is so fresh? 

The media may find it more profitable to chase the fresh scandal, but Mueller — and others — will not forget 2018, or 2017, or 2016, or …

Dana Milbank on the singular problem of “Individual-1”
Washington Post

His own Justice Department just said he directed a crime.

Late Friday, U.S. prosecutors — ordinary prosecutors, not the ones working for Robert S. Mueller III’s supposed rogue witch hunt — filed papers in court saying President Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen admitted “he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”

This means that it is the considered view of Individual-1’s Justice Department that Individual-1 participated in a felony violation of campaign finance law by directing, in order to influence the presidential election, the payoff of two women who alleged affairs with Individual-1.

Mueller and his team will decide in the coming months whether to accuse Trump of crimes. But in one sense, these are just details. That Trump is fundamentally lawless can no longer be seriously disputed. His own prosecutors now say he took part in a crime — and his former secretary of state says Trump had little concern about what was legal.

Man. That individual-1 guy better hope he gets a pardon from Trump. Because it sounds like he’s in big trouble.

Randall D. Eliason on how the latest filings light up the landscape of the Russia investigation.
Washington Post

On Friday prosecutors filed three highly anticipated documents related to the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Allegations about hush-money payments and possible campaign finance violations by the president grabbed a lot of attention. But the key takeaway is this: A robust investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia continues — and the administration’s legal peril based on those ties continues to grow.

The fact that Trump came back and shouted “no collusion” and “totally exonerates Trump” after this latest round of documents shows that either Trump is being spoon fed a false version  of what Mueller is posting, or he simply doesn’t care. Or both.

The raging debate about the hush-money payments is something of a sideshow. Although serious, campaign finance violations often are not criminal and certainly are not the key issue here. The key is Russia, and Cohen has joined the ranks of other cooperators providing Mueller with extensive information on those issues. We now know Trump was secretly negotiating a deal with Russia worth hundreds of millions of dollars while running for president and while Russia was actively working to help him get elected. There is mounting evidence of substantial connections among Russia, the Trump campaign, and Trump’s business interests, and of a possible criminal conspiracy to conceal those connections.

Eliason reviews the Manafort, Cohen, and Flynn documents, giving an overview that can be compared to … some others.

Jeffrey Epstein

Carl Hiaasen wonders how the justice system can stand against such inequities.
Miami Herald

Stephen King himself would be challenged to invent a fictional villain as monstrous as Jeffrey Epstein, but Epstein is real.

And, despite mountainous evidence of stomach-churning crimes, today he is free as a bird — thanks to the man who now sits as the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Most of the cases brought by prosecutors are settled. But it’s wrong to lump what happened with Epstein in with what happens with many people. Many of these cases represent cases where defendants, often poor or middle-class defendants, were saddled with heaps of terrifying charges that have mandatory minimum sentences which are then used to bludgeon them into accepting a plea, whether or not they are guilty. They end up considering themselves “lucky” to get away with being marked as felons for the rest of their lives. The sourness of these deals is only made worse by the kind of offer made to scuzballs like Epstein.

It’s well-documented that Alexander Acosta, then the U.S. attorney in Miami, approved a slap-on-the-wrist plea deal for Epstein, a rich hedge fund manager who recruited scores of underage girls to perform sex acts at his Palm Beach mansion and his homes in New York, New Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Any pretense that Epstein got the ‘same kind of deal’ because other people also took pleas is a completely false reading of what really happens. There was nothing ordinary or typical about this deal.

Leonard Pitts on the inexcusable horror done to Epstein’s victims. Twice.
Miami Herald

No one even knows how many girls there were.

Federal prosecutors identified 36. In “Perversion of Justice,” a stunning piece of investigative work by Julie K. Brown that was published last week, the Miami Herald reported that it has found 80. But accounts given by the girls themselves suggest there may be hundreds.

Hundreds.

Note that if Epstein had been charged honestly for even one of these crimes, he would likely have faced at least a five year sentence. His plea deal required not just discarding dozens, or hundreds, of victims, but lying about what happened to those few who remained.

Foreign Relations

Anne Applebaum on how Trump is showing the world America can be ignored.
Washington Post

In Budapest, the Hungarians are undermining the policies of the Trump administration by following its lead. In a recent speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “our mission is to reassert our sovereignty.” In addition, he said, “we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well.”

But “exerting sovereignty,” by undermining NATO and other international norms and agreements, perfectly describes what Hungary is now doing — at the expense of the United States.

And it’s always hard to push back on someone who is only following your example. Even when you’re a bad example.

For those who — understandably — don’t follow Hungarian politics, let me preface this by explaining that Hungary is a de facto one-party state, led by a prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has stayed in power by exerting total control over all broadcast and print media in the country; by manipulating and gerrymandering elections; and by creating a network of corrupt oligarchs who finance him and his party. One of the reasons Orban gets away with all of this is because he has successfully changed the subject to attract foreign support: Although Hungary has few immigrants of any kind, Orban runs a chauvinistic anti-immigration campaign, deliberately designed to appeal to the European and American far right. Stephen K. Bannon is an avid fan.

Michael Deibert on why the world is seeing such a rise in refugees and migrants.
The Guardian

Demonized by Donald Trump as an “invasion” of miscreants who should be housed in concentration camp-like tent cities, the migrants, many of whom are in fact planning on applying for asylum, persist under the weight of a US history in their home countries as heavy as any burden they carry with them.

The bulk of Deibert’s piece is a long, and ugly, walk through the history of US interference in Central America and the lingering consequences of those actions. Definitely worth a read if you want to understand how we got to where we are.

Infrastructure

Chuck Schumer says there will be no infrastructure deal unless it deals with climate change.
Washington Post

Now that Democrats will soon control one branch of Congress, President Trump is again signaling that infrastructure could be an area of compromise. We agree, but if the president wanted to earn Democratic support in the Senate, any infrastructure bill would have to include policies and funding that help transition our country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the United States already faces from climate change.

For too long, Congress has failed to act in a meaningful way to combat the threat posed by climate change. Powerful special interests have a stranglehold on many of my Republican colleagues; some GOP legislators even refuse to acknowledge that climate change is happening. So despite the immense size of the problem, despite wildfires that sweep through the West and hurricanes that grow more powerful over the years, real action on climate change has been stymied by the denialism of the president and too many Republicans in Congress. While notable progress was made during the Obama administration to stimulate renewable-energy technology and fashion international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, the Trump administration has shamefully undone much of that progress and appears unwilling to take any new steps to combat climate change. Worst of all, the administration is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, giving a green light to countries such as China and India to increase carbon emissions by unacceptable amounts.

Demographics

Leonard Pitts on how Republicans are right about losing their country.
Miami Herald

I said it before, I’ll say it again.

“As this country becomes blacker, browner, gayer, younger, more Hispanic and more Muslim, it is increasingly the case that the GOP cannot win if all voters vote. It cannot win, in other words, without cheating.” That observation, made in this space a few weeks back, was, let us say, not applauded by conservative readers.

I think I may put a bookmark in that one and just use it every week.

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