Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Donald Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election marches onward. Trump and his alleged co-conspirators, defenders and allies appear to be encircled.
Beginning last week, there have been a series of events which could spell doom for Donald Trump. His attorney, personal fixer and consigliere Michael Cohen has agreed to fully cooperate with Mueller's investigation. Court documents reveal that Cohen has admitted to lying about Trump's real estate dealings in Russia and other business matters. Cohen has also admitted that Donald Trump was fully briefed and involved in these real estate and other dealings (including, perhaps a cover-up), despite Trump's repeated denials that he had any connections to Russia and that he would not profit from them while a candidate or president.
Paul Manafort, one of Donald Trump's closest advisers, has allegedly violated his plea deal with Mueller by lying to prosecutors. It appears that Manafort has also been feeding information to Trump's attorney and presumably the president himself. Trump has responded by signaling that he may pardon Manafort -- which would be a de facto act of obstructing justice -- for violating the law in order to protect him.
On Tuesday, court filings revealed that Mueller has recommended that Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump's national security adviser, serve no prison time for the crimes of lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia, and those of other members of Trump's transition team. Flynn also lied to federal investigators about serving as an agent of the Turkish government. Flynn has clearly been extensively cooperating with Mueller's investigation, and his recommended sentence indicates that the information he offered Mueller was so valuable that it could be traded for his freedom.
What comes next in the Russia scandal and Mueller's investigation into Donald Trump and the president's inner circle? When will Mueller's investigation end, and with what outcome? How do Trump's denials, lies and evasions about his relationship to Russia and Vladimir Putin fit a broader behavior of criminal behavior and a compulsive criminal personality? Why does Donald Trump behave like a mafia boss? What does this indicate about his ability to corrupt those around him while demanding their loyalty to them? Is Donald Trump a traitor to the United States? What strategy are Trump's lawyers using to protect him from the consequences of his actions? Will Donald Trump ever actually face consequences of any kind for his alleged and potential crimes?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Seth Abramson. For nine years he served as a criminal defense attorney and criminal investigator. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent, the New York Times bestseller "Proof of Collusion: How Donald Trump Betrayed America." Abramson has also been a regular commentator for numerous major news outlets, including the BBC, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, PBS and ABC News.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
With all of the recent developments in Mueller's investigation, where are we in the timeline of the Russia-Trump scandal?
It is unlikely, even if things proceed pretty expeditiously, that we could reach the terminus of this story before the very beginning of 2020. That of course is itself enormously complicated because then you're looking at the [presidential] caucuses and primaries in January and February of 2020.
Part of that delay in getting to a just conclusion with Mueller's investigation and Trump's Russia connections is that there are almost certainly going to be some legal battles. These could potentially involve subpoenaing the president -- which Muller may try to do -- as well as executive privilege claims from Trump's legal team with respect to the Mueller report.
As far as Mueller’s side of things, no one knows for sure how much time he has left. But you can look at his progress and project out from there that we might be seeing a final report sent to the Department of Justice sometime in very late spring or early summer. But of course that does not mean that the American people and the world get to see it immediately. It all just mean that is when the legal battles begin.
Donald Trump and his allies are acting like he is guilty. Trump's public behavior and that of his inner circle seems to be enough to indict him for obstruction of justice and likely other crimes as well.
Legal professionals -- whether they’ve done criminal investigative work or criminal trial advocacy -- would likely see this as high comedy if it were not a national tragedy. Every single fact that emerges fits a pattern where they are inculpatory, meaning indicative of guilt.
There is virtually no sign anywhere of exculpatory evidence. Yet because the ultimate target of the investigation is the president of the United States, everyone is actually bending over backwards to treat Trump better than any criminal defendant would ever be treated in our country. This is why it is so humorous to see people complaining about Trump's treatment in the media or his treatment by prosecutors. In my career as a legal professional, I have never seen someone treated with kid gloves the way that Donald Trump and his top aides have been.
Trump's aides and other members of his inner circle have been called to testify before Congress, but not under oath. Moreover, they can choose which questions they want to answer. Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski made claims of executive privilege that are laugh-out-loud funny before the Congress and there’s no consequence whatsoever. Every day I am in equal parts bemused and also deeply aggrieved for our country as I watch what is taking place.
Trump's presidency is making it even more obvious that there is a criminal class in the United States, one comprised of rich people who have one standard of law for themselves and another for everybody else.
That’s always been my approach. I do not think that this is a national emergency primarily from a policy standpoint. Let me be clear: I personally object to basically every policy position Donald Trump pretends to hold. The real emergency here is whether the rule of law will stand or whether America's democracy will be permanently weakened by a single man and his cronies.
As you said, it is a corruption question. I would not be writing the things that I'm writing about Trump if, for example, Mike Pence were president. Now, I might then oppose Pence's entire policy agenda, but I wouldn’t be saying that Mike Pence is a threat to the rule of law, a threat to our democracy and possibly a national security and even global security threat because he has been compromised by the Russians and has his finger on the nuclear button.
I also want to note it is not just Trump's corruption which causes me such great concern. This is what really troubles me as a lawyer. It’s not just the corruption among businesspeople and politicians. It is also a degree of corruption we’re starting to see among some attorneys. That’s not just Jeff Sessions. It’s not just Paul Manafort's attorneys, potentially. But you have Rudy Giuliani, who has spread untruths throughout our cultural ecosystem for going on six months. You have Giuliani and others making statements about the criminal justice system, complaining that Paul Manafort for example was held without bail.
I do not think that most Americans realize how many of the people who are arrested daily sit in jail for months and months before trial because they can’t make bail. Paul Manafort, who’s a multimillionaire, gets held on bail and you have roughly half the country which supports Donald Trump saying it is unfair. These are clearly people who do not understand our criminal justice system and how it actually works.
Donald Trump has a decades-long public record of corruption and other illegal behavior. Yet people voted for him. Moreover, Trump is able to corrupt people around him. For example, Rudy Giuliani was once a federal prosecutor who helped to bring down the mob in New York. Now he is working to protect Trump, a man who acts like a mob boss.
Donald Trump appears to corrupt virtually everyone who comes into his sphere. What I tend to say to people is, “If you want to know what a lifelong career criminal looks like, one who is a white-collar criminal, it’s basically Donald Trump.” Now, that clearly is not enough for people to vote in sufficient numbers against Trump, or to have prevented him from becoming president. This is the case partly because certain voters admire someone who can get away with a certain amount of malfeasance or violating the law and then somehow ends up rich.
What strikes me as something that should have been spoken about much more during the 2016 campaign is how Trump is a bad businessman. Trump has declared bankruptcy multiple times. He was gifted $413 million by his father and all he managed to do was increase it marginally over a 30-year period -- largely through fraud. There is nothing in Trump's business record, even putting aside the corruption and the fraud, that would suggest he could run the United States properly or effectively.
How would you explain to the average person who may not follow politics very closely why the last few weeks have been so important and revelatory for the Trump-Russia scandal and Mueller's investigation?
Based upon Michael Cohen’s plea to making false statements to Congress he faces up to five years in prison. And of course Michael Cohen is the 20-year attorney, fixer and consigliere for Donald Trump.
With that plea, it was confirmed to us that Donald Trump was lying to American voters for the entirety of the presidential campaign, and not just about his ties to the Russians and Kremlin-linked Russian oligarchs. This was also the entire basis of his foreign policy since 2013. I develop this more in my book, "Proof of Collusion."
Every statement Trump made about his foreign policy towards Russia -- and, I would add, about much of his foreign policy in the Middle East -- was bought and paid for by individuals who might be considered foreign enemies of the United States.
There used to be a sense in this country that politics ends at the water’s edge. Once you leave American territorial waters and you look out on the rest of the world we are all Americans. We all want the country to be safe and healthy. We all want a good future for our children.
But we all should be surprised that the Republican Party will go down in history as having done absolutely nothing whatsoever to check the corruption of Donald Trump through collusion with foreign powers that are enemies of the United States. That should perpetually shock us. It will be written about by historians for possibly the next few hundred years.
Is Donald Trump a traitor? Has he committed treason in a way akin to a modern-day Benedict Arnold, or perhaps even far worse?
With Benedict Arnold there was a question of treason in that case because America was in a declared military conflict. In this situation the treason statute does not apply because the United States is not in a declared military conflict. However, many people would point out that in the 2016 presidential campaign, unbeknownst to most Americans, the country was in the midst of a "hot" cyberwar with the Russians. But that probably is not going to count for the purposes of determining if Donald Trump or his allies committed treason.
Nevertheless, what I show in my new book is that Donald Trump will be the new paradigm for treachery and traitorous conduct against the United States. This is what people really need to understand. Vladimir Putin’s goal is to collapse the Western alliance of nations.
Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin in taking actions, through his phony foreign policy, that have deeply destabilized the Western alliance that won World War I, that won World War II, and keeps us safe in a world where there are still nuclear weapons in the hands of some very dangerous people.
Donald Trump's scale of treachery against the United States, and frankly all people worldwide who want us to be safe and healthy and free from additional wars, goes well beyond the scope of Benedict Arnold selling out a single fort in New York during the Revolutionary War.
How do you think Trump reconciles loyalty to country and his oath as president to protect the country with his own private material interests? Is he even that sophisticated?
I want to be careful when I talk about this aspect of the situation because I'm speaking from a very particular perspective as someone who worked in the criminal justice system for many years and represented thousands of criminal defendants.
From my own significant experience over time you begin to see patterns of behavior among people who you are representing. There are some people you represent where perhaps this was a single slip-up and they’re going to be able to get on with their life and be productive and happy going forward.
There are other people who are in some way pathologically criminal. They will continue to re-offend simply because of their attitude towards themselves, other people and the culture that they live in.
To me, from what I see as a legal professional -- not a medical professional -- Donald Trump is in fact someone who is pathological. He is apparently, to me, a malignant narcissist, a pathological liar and someone whose instincts are effectively criminal instincts. Donald Trump will always act for his own personal gain. Usually, it’s something venal, sometimes it's for women, but almost all the time it’s money. There’s actually no consideration whatsoever for the country or the well-being of anyone outside his immediate family. And sometimes I even question whether he cares about most of the people in his family.
That’s what scares me the most about Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a deeply broken, antisocial individual whose finger is daily on the nuclear button. That’s why this is a national emergency, not because I do not like this aspect or some other aspect of what he says on public policy.
What is Paul Manafort's role in Trump's relationship to Russia? What is Robert Mueller trying to do with him?
The Trump-Russia scandal is the largest, most complex, most wide-ranging federal criminal investigation of any of our lifetimes. Now what that means is that there are many different narratives within this single federal investigation. Sometimes when we look at someone like Paul Manafort, we want to say, “OK, what’s his place in this single pyramid of criminal conduct?” In fact, it’s much more complicated than that.
You do have individuals who are involved in one or two of these narratives of collusion and are, in fact, only lightly or in some cases not involved at all in other parts. In the case of Paul Manafort, his story really begins many years ago when he was pitching to the Russians and Russian oligarchs a plan for him to essentially travel the world and be in many different countries promoting the Kremlin’s interests.
He pitched that as a $10 million plan to Oleg Deripaska, who became his boss shortly thereafter in the 2000s. His proffer of going around the world promoting the Kremlin's interest was accepted.
In the very same year that was accepted, Manafort bought a condo at Trump Tower. He moved into the building that Donald Trump lives in. Donald Trump is someone who has a lengthy relationship with the Russians and who has clearly been targeted by the Russians, as Craig Unger’s book ["House of Trump, House of Putin"] and many others have established.
Paul Manafort goes to Thomas Barrack in February of 2016 and says to him -- a close friend of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump himself -- “I need to get to Trump.” This is partly because he was deeply in debt and he wanted to find a way to make money through Trump and get whole financially by communicating with the Russians while he was Trump’s campaign manager. It also suggests a much longer course of conduct in which Manafort is promoting Kremlin interests. It was clear by 2013 that the Kremlin’s interests, in their view, were best served by Donald Trump becoming president.
What about the repeated themes with Trump and his inner circle involving possible money laundering and real estate deals with Putin and Russia?
That’s one of those questions where the answer probably takes up two entire chapters. Sometimes people ask, "Why is the book called 'Proof of Collusion'? Why aren’t we just talking about conspiracy?" I always say to people that "collusion" is a lay term, an umbrella term under which are dozens of federal criminal statutes that are implicated by the many narratives of the Trump-Russia scandal.
Some of those statutes include bribery, money laundering, illegal solicitation of foreign donations and aiding and abetting computer crimes, as well as a number of crimes that would be charged as conspiracy. Conspiracy to commit election, fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and so on. As well as all the crimes after the investigation started: obstruction of justice, perjury, witness tampering, making false statements and so on.
Your question about money laundering is a particular series of narratives within the larger Trump-Russia case that is incredibly complex, because of course Paul Manafort has his own money-laundering operation and [former deputy campaign manager] Rick Gates is joined to that operation too. That’s why they ended up getting charged in the way that they did. You also have a storyline that doesn’t involve Paul Manafort at all, and that is Michael Cohen, Felix Sater, Donald Trump and some of the deals they were trying to work out with the Russians during the campaign.
Then there’s also a third set of narratives, and of course there are many more than this, but three that I’ll mention now involve Jared Kushner, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. That is a whole angle of this story that has been only lightly covered because we call it the Trump-Russia scandal. But in fact a lot of the money laundering appears to be trying to get money out of the Middle East in exchange for dropping sanctions on the Russians. This is something many nations in the Middle East wanted, because if sanctions were dropped the Russians might agree to stop promoting Iran’s interests in the region.
The Trump-Russia scandal will likely end up being in many respects a bribery and money laundering and possibly even RICO scandal, with features of conspiracy to commit election fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States.
How has Donald Trump shown a pattern of obstructing justice, especially in public?
First, let's make clear that obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense in the view of the Republican Party. It’s really important to understand that from the Clinton years. Such an understanding survives to this very day.
While sometimes you hear legal professionals say, “Oh, perjury is so hard to prove. Obstruction is so hard to prove. Witness tampering is so hard to prove.” I have to be honest, you only hear people say such things when they are on television or radio talking about powerful people. If you go into the courts of the United States where the guy who lives down the street from you has been arrested for something, it is not very difficult to get a conviction for obstruction of justice or perjury or witness tampering. People go to prison for these things all the time.
In the case of Donald Trump, his course of obstruction of justice is seen with respect to the firing of James Comey and the attempted firing on two occasions of Robert Mueller, as well as Trump's attempt to get Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself. The examples go on and on. They are so laughably complete as a prosecution for obstruction of justice that it is really frustrating as a legal professional to hear people say, “Well, it’s really hard to prove that he tampered with witnesses" when Trump threatens Sally Yates and Jim Comey.
From the standpoint of someone who’s represented regular people as I did for many years, Donald Trump has many times over committed obstruction of justice and many times over committed witness tampering.
In addition, I didn’t even mention the fact that he wrote a false statement for his son and then sent his son out to give that false statement to the country -- knowing that criminal investigators would be using it -- after that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting was disclosed in mid-2017. I have lost count of how many witnesses he has tampered with. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s obstructed justice. Frankly, while the collusion case is incredibly strong, so too are the impeachable offenses that happened after the investigation began.