More and more, the Mueller investigation reminds me of a professional wrestling match. Bodies are flying around, people sometimes get genuinely injured, but the big, high-impact moves — the flips, the flops, the super-duper-stunner kicks or whatever — are all scripted and choreographed for show. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment for the benefit of a willingly gullible audience.
On November 29, 2018 Vox.com published a list of all the Mueller indictments known to date. Two years. Tens, or maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars. This is all they have to show for it. There two ways to look at this list. One is that the wiley Mueller is keeping his cards close to his vest, slowly building a case to expose how Trump and Putin conspired to steal the US Presidency from Hillary Clinton — or something — and isn’t showing anywhere near everything he has. The other is that, after two years, Mueller still doesn’t have anything at all on Donald Trump and every Hail Mary he’s thrown, has mostly been a bust — at least in terms of the purported collusion.
The only thing surprising to me in all of this is just how much effort has gone into concocting a conspiracy theory from a more or less random set of unsurprising criminal activity. So far Mueller has managed to get some convictions on old, but legitimate, tax and bank fraud charges. He’s indicted some alleged Russian troll farm operators. Half of them we can’t even be sure are real, the other half he seems to be having difficulty actually prosecuting. He’s gathered up a collection of what seem to be low-level players (hence no risk to Mueller) and harangued them long enough to concoct “making misleading statements to the FBI” charges, even though the sentences for those convicted are so low as to make me wonder if there was anything even approaching criminal intent. And he’s rounded up a couple of petty identity theft criminals.
The 15-minute-long list of questionable activities James Comey read off on the topic of Hillary Clinton’s email server was more damning than Mueller’s two-year list of indictments — at least in terms of the parties supposedly being investigated. How can Mueller’s investigation have turned up so little? If you know anything at all about the current state of the internet and social media you know that most of it is fake, and this didn’t start with the 2016 election cycle.
So when Vox — being a collection of gallant journalists and inveterate truth seekers who would never mislead anyone — published a list and little blurb about each indictment to explain its import in the critical issue of Russians stealing our democracy I hoped to find some meat. I didn’t. And while I’m sure it was just an oversight, Vox didn’t really give the indictments the skepticism they deserve. In the spirit of kindness, and because I’m a giver, I want to help by taking a swing at that.
1) George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, was arrested in July 2017 and pleaded guilty last October to making false statements to the FBI. He got a 14-day sentence.
This will set the tone for most of the indictments. Making false statements to the FBI is, indeed, a crime. Especially if you do it intentionally, and certainly if the statements pertain to actual illegal activities under investigation. On the other hand, if the false statements are incidental and the connection to illegal activities spurious or nonexistent, it’s just prosecutorial abuse.
So just how misleading and criminal were Papadopoulos’ statements? Apparently 14 days worth. Wow. Nice job, Bob. Find a “weak link” with no, or very little, in the way of resources to mount a months- or years-long legal defense against the US government. Entrap them with hours and hours of questioning then, when you have nothing that points to actual collusion, you prosecute them on making contradictory statements regarding largely irrelevant details. This will play out multiple times in the Mueller investigation.
2) Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, was indicted on a total of 25 different counts by Mueller’s team, related mainly to his past work for Ukrainian politicians and his finances. He had two trials scheduled, and the first ended in a conviction on eight counts of financial crimes. To avert the second trial, Manafort struck a plea deal with Mueller in September 2018 (though Mueller’s team said in November that he breached that agreement by lying to them).
Vox says “related mainly to” but what they mean is “related to” his past work. How much past? 12-15 years — more than a decade before Trump started a campaign. The crimes? Failing to fill out proper forms, failing to report income in the proper category. Applying for loans he didn’t get. Stuff like that. Quite probably illegal — he’d been under investigation for it a decade earlier and why he wasn’t prosecuted then is an interesting question. The more interesting question though, is why now? And where’s the connection to Russian collusion during the campaign? Someone? Anyone?
3) Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide and Manafort’s longtime junior business partner, was indicted on similar charges to Manafort. But in February he agreed to a plea deal with Mueller’s team, pleading guilty to just one false statements charge and one conspiracy charge.
False statements again. Similar charges — meaning decade-old tax and banking charges. Not “Russian collusion.” Again. But they did throw in “conspiracy” for allegedly working with Manafort to thwart the FBI’s effort to find someone, anyone, who will say something, anything, they can use to “prove” Russian collusion.
4) Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty last December to making false statements to the FBI.
See Papadopoulos. More or less ordinary citizen – in an economic sense – bankrupted by legal bills and forced to plead to something to stop the bloodsucking. False statements. Again. This is really getting redundant…
5-20) 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies were indicted on conspiracy charges, with some also being accused of identity theft. The charges related to a Russian propaganda effort designed to interfere with the 2016 campaign. The companies involved are the Internet Research Agency, often described as a “Russian troll farm,” and two other companies that helped finance it. The Russian nationals indicted include 12 of the agency’s employees and its alleged financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
This is a biggie. Except this is where Mueller couldn’t (or wouldn’t) go to trial when Concord Management and Consulting, one of three (related) companies named in the indictment, showed up in court to defend itself. The company entered a Not Guilty plea and insisted on seeing the evidence against it. Mueller took some issue, citing national security, what with putting fake internet memes on Facebook being such a devious and deadly risk and all.
The two sides have continued to wrangle over this. In November a DC Circuit judge (Trump appointee) threw out Concord’s second motion to dismiss Mueller’s charge. As part of the opinion the judge warned the Mueller team that they will actually have to prove conspiracy against the firm, which, as we’ve seen so far, isn’t Mueller’s strong suit. And there’s still no apparent connection to Trump. Having said all that, the biggest issue is really this: if you’ve ever bothered to look at the actual memes put out by the troll farm and still think this collection of half-assery somehow changed the course of American history, you’re delusional.
Why would Vox omit the names of Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, which are clearly named in the indictment? Maybe because there’s a lot of internet coverage about Mueller’s weak performance if you search on those names.
21) Richard Pinedo: This California man pleaded guilty to an identity theft charge in connection with the Russian indictments, and has agreed to cooperate with Mueller. He was sentenced to 6 months in prison and 6 months of home detention in October.
This guy stole, and then sold, some bank account numbers and even Vox can’t figure out just how he’s connected to actual Russian collusion by Trump. But he’s cooperating with the FBI. And still, somehow, the FBI doesn’t have shit. Cause, day-um…
22) Alex van der Zwaan: This London lawyer pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Rick Gates and another unnamed person based in Ukraine. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and has completed his sentence.
False statements again. Wow. A London lawyer, who worked on decade-old international deals with a guy who knew Manafort. 30 days. Again, great job, Bob. Are we ever gonna get to someone who actually worked for Trump and actually colluded on something? Anyone?
23) Konstantin Kilimnik: This longtime business associate of Manafort and Gates, who’s currently based in Russia, was charged alongside Manafort with attempting to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses in Manafort’s pending case this year.
He obstructed justice by contacting witnesses regarding Manafort’s trial on decade-old international banking and tax issues. Umm, can we please get to something about actual collusion?
This might, or might not, be legitimate – unlike everything else in this list which are pretty clearly bullshit charges in a gigantic fishing expedition. The problem is we’ll never know. Because, as Mueller well knows, none of these people, if they actually exist, will ever come to trial.
There’s the problem that in a Grand Jury only the prosecution makes a case. The grand jury’s only role is to determine if, in the event everything the prosecution says is actually true, some crime may have been committed. Given Mueller’s shameful, half-ass performance in indictments 1 through 23, it seems pretty unlikely that most, much less all, of what he alleged is true. So this one is no better than 50/50 with zero chance of ever finding out the truth. It’s basically a PR indictment because Mueller is sinking fast.
How about we actually investigate the emails? Could we go there? Or is that just too much trouble? Because it seems to me that if you really want to solve this you might want to dig a little deeper into what happened there. But that’s just me.
36) Michael Cohen: In August, Trump’s former lawyer pleaded guilty to 8 counts — tax and bank charges, related to his finances and taxi business, and campaign finance violations — related to hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with Donald Trump, as part of a separate investigation in New York (that Mueller had handed off). But in November, he made a plea deal with Mueller too, for lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
- 4 indictments (Papadopoulos, Gates, Flynn, van der Zwaan) for false statements
- 3 indictments for banking and tax fraud charges stemming from decade-old international business deals
- 15 indictments of named Russians for conspiracy and identity theft, which Mueller seems reluctant to prosecute because the evidence against the criminals (running a troll farm) is just too sensitive to be exposed. These are useless if they don’t go to trial where Mueller has to put up or shut up.
- 1 indictment for bank fraud and identity theft for a guy who allegedly sold some info to Russians.
- 12 indictments of alleged Russians, who may or may not actually exist, and which Mueller knows he will never have to prove or prosecute. These are useless.
- 1 indictment for tax and bank fraud in a taxi business and campaign finance violations.
And there we have it. Two years and tens of millions of dollars. 36 indictments. One-third of which are completely and utterly useless. Another one-third which are useless because, while a troll farm is a criminal activity, it’s a normal Russian criminal activity that probably has zero connection to Trump unless Mueller can prove otherwise.
So two-thirds of the indictments are largely pointless. Half of what’s left are about criminal acts that happened over a decade ago, so they simply can’t be related to campaign collusion. And the remaining are “false statements” indictments that got two weeks to 30 days for the offender. Wow.
I do get it. I do. Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow. And Donny Jr. and Ivanka worked on plans to build a hotel in Moscow. Allow me a moment to find my shocked face… They own a hotel/casino/resort company. I’m just having a lot of trouble figuring out why that’s different from Marriott, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Hilton, et al. Seriously. They all have hotels in Moscow. Tell me you’re not surprised by this.
“Well, they didn’t run for President.” Right, but you need to tell me what, if they did, you think they should have done differently from Trump. At minimum, Trump would have had to go to Moscow, actually gotten some sort of concessions from Moscow, and continued to the effort well after he became serious about the campaign. But it seems like none of that happened. So I’m dubious.
Meanwhile, the real threat is right here at home.