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Be Careful What You Ask For: Wasting Time with Manafort, Cohen, and Russiagate

Photograph Source Voice of America | CC BY 2.0

So, Paul Manafort, described by the New York Times as “a longtime lobbyist and political consultant who worked for multiple Republican candidates and presidents,” was convicted of bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account. And Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, pled guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud (making false statements to obtain loans), and breaking campaign finance laws by paying off two women who claimed to have had sexual affairs with Trump. Because Cohen says those payoffs were made at Trump’s direction, that is the one charge that directly implicates Trump.

On the basis of the these results, the NYT editorial board insists: “Only a complete fantasist … could continue to claim that this investigation of foreign subversion of an American election, which has already yielded dozens of other indictments and several guilty pleas, is a ‘hoax’ or ‘scam’ or ‘rigged witch hunt.’” Democrats concur, saying the results “put the lie to Mr. Trump’s argument that Mr. Mueller was engaged in a political investigation.”

But these crimes are tax fraud, money laundering, and credit app padding that have nothing to do with Donald Trump, and campaign-finance violations related to what a critic of Trump aptly describes as “a classic B-team type of bumbling screw-up of covering up mistresses.” I question the level of word play, if not fantasizing, necessary to claim that these crimes validate “this investigation of foreign subversion.” None of them has anything to do with that. The perils of this, that, these, and those.

Do these results disprove that the Mueller probe is “a political investigation”? I think they imply quite the opposite, and quite obviously so.

Why? Because these convictions would not have occurred if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. There would be no convictions because there would have been no investigation.

If Hillary had been elected, all the crimes of Manafort and Cohen—certainly those that took place over many years before the election, but even, I think, those having to do with campaign contributions and mistress cover-ups—would never have been investigated, because all would have been considered right with the political world.

The Manafort and Cohen crimes would have been ignored as the standard tactics of the elite financial grifting—as well as of parasitism on, and payoffs by, political campaigns—that they are. Indeed, there would have been no emergency, save-our-democracy-from-Russian-collaboration, Special Counsel investigation, from which these irrelevant charges were spun off, at all.

The kinds of antics Manafort and Cohen have been prosecuted for went unnoticed when Donald Trump was a donor to the Democratic and Republican parties, and if he had stayed in his Tower doling out campaign contributions, they still would be. It’s only because he foolishly won the Presidency against the wishes of the dominant sectors of the ruling class that those antics became the target of prosecutorial investigation. Lesson to Donald: Be careful what you wish for.

What the NYT calls “a culture of graft as well as corruption” that “suffused” the Trump campaign is part and parcel of aculture of politico-capitalist corruption that suffuses American electoral politics in general. Manafort, who has indeed been “a longtime lobbyist and political consultant,” is only one in a long, bipartisan line that “enrich [themselves] by working for some of the world’s most notorious thugs and autocrats.”

Have you heard of the Podestas? The Clinton Foundation? Besides, the economic purpose of American electoral politics is to funnel millions to consultants and the media.  Campaign finance law violations? We’ll see how the lawsuit over $84 million worth of funds allegedly transferred illegally from state party contributions to the Clinton campaign works out. Does the media report, does anybody know or care, about it? Will anybody ever go to prison over it?

The Republicans and Democrats would just as soon leave this entire culture of graft and corruption undisturbed by the prosecutorial apparatus of the state. That kind of thing can get out of hand. Only because the election of Donald Trump was a mistake from the establishment point of view has that apparatus been sicced on him. The frantic search, anywhere and everywhere, for some legal charges that can stick to Trump is driven by a burning desire to get something on Donald Trump that will fatally wound him politically, and serve as “objective” grounds for impeachment or resignation.

So, it’s my contention that, without the political opposition to Donald Trump as president, none of this legal prosecution would be taking place. The convictions of Manafort and Cohen don’t put a lie to the idea that the Mueller investigation is political; they are an effect of the fact that it is.

Ar any rate, there can be no doubt that the Manafort and Cohen convictions have upped the political ante for everybody. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal (second wealthiest Senator; net worth ~ $80 million) has now invoked the dreaded word, from which it’s hard to retreat: “We’re in a Watergate moment.”

Yup, the anti-Trump establishment, led by the Democrats, has now succeeded, via a legal ground game, in moving the ball into the political red zone where impeachment talk is unavoidable. But going forward from here, the plays and paths available are very dangerous to the establishment and the Democrats themselves, and the whole game is getting to the point where it can—indeed, almost inevitably will—seriously disrupt the system they want to protect.

First of all, the Democrats will now face increasing demands for impeachment from the impassioned members of their base whom they have riled up to see Trump as the epitome of the Putin-Nazi evil that threatens “our democracy.” If the Democrats insist these convictions are not just matters of financial hijinx, irrelevant to Mueller’s “Russia collusion” investigation, and irrelevant in fact to anything of political substance; if they assert that the payoffs to Stormy and Karen (the only acts directly involving Trump) disqualify Trump for the presidency, then they will have no excuse but to call for Trump’s impeachment, and act to make it happen. Their base will demand that Democratic candidates run on that promise, and if the Democrats re-take the House, that they begin impeachment proceedings immediately.

So, if, after all the “only a complete fantasist” talk, the Democrats don’t act to impeach Trump, they will further alienate their base, and drive more liberals and progressives to withhold their votes, if not abandon the party altogether. And evil Putin-Nazi Trump will be strengthened.

If they try to impeach and fail (which is likely), well, then, as happened to the Republicans with Clinton, they will just look stupid, and will be punished for having wasted the nation’s political time and energy foolishly.  And Trump will be strengthened.

If they were to impeach, convict, and remove Trump (even by forcing a resignation), a large swath of the population would conclude, correctly, that a ginned-up litigation had been used to overturn the result of the 2016 election, that the Democrats had gotten away with what the Republicans couldn’t in 1998-9. That swath of the population would likely withdraw completely from electoral politics, leaving all their problems and resentments intact—hidden for a while, but sure to erupt in some other ways. It would deeply undermine any notion that the political system holds the confidence of the people, and intensify division, disruption, and the sense of incipient civil war in the country more than any number of Russian Facebook posts.

Furthermore, if the Democrats were successful in removing Trump, their own base would be confronted with the terrible beauty of the Pence presidency to which they had given birth. After such a fight, Pence, who is a much more serious, organized, and ideologically-coherent religious proto-fascist than Trump, will benefit from the inevitable propensity of Democrats to calm things down and protect the stability of the system. Progressive Democrats will find, again, that the two-party system has produced no good result. In other words, the result of a successful impeachment effort might very well be more disaffection from “our democracy” by Democrats.

In short, through a process of litigation and prosecution, the Democrats are getting what they asked for: The field of political discourse and action will now increasingly center on the possibility of removing or impeaching the president. Given their construction of the Manafort-Cohen verdicts, they must move forward on that, or they will be perceived as weak and back-pedaling, and Trump will be strengthened. But if they do move forward, that will initiate a political battle that will tear the country apart and end up either with their defeat or the victory of Mike Pence.

Of course, the Democratic leadership knows all this. Which is why they have always said they do not want to push for impeachment or removal, and probably will not. They also know—and they know that Trump’s supporters know—that a campaign-law violation has no more political substance than Bill Clinton’s perjury. They know that they are not likely to win that fight in the Senate. They know the can of worms they are opening with charges that could be levied against most rich politicians. And, most importantly, they know the fight they will have to wage will be intensely divisive and will deeply undermine confidence in the political system, however it ends up.

The Democrats much prefer to have Trump in office to kick around politically. The most likely scenario is that they will make a cloakroom agreement with Republicans not to go too far, while they continue to whip up Trump-Putin “Russiagate” fever among their constituency. They will continue to stoke anticipation of a smoking “collusion” gun from Mueller, which will probably never come. The Democrats are not really after impeaching Trump; they are after stringing along their progressive voters.

In the meantime, the delightful Trump-effect—his constant embarrassment of American political self-righteousness and discomfiting of both political parties—will continue apace.

By the way, for those who think that Manafort’s conviction portends a smoking gun, based on his work for “pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych,” as the NYT and other liberals persistently call him, I would suggest looking at this Twitter thread by Aaron Maté. It’s a brilliant shredding of Rachel Maddow’s (and, to a lesser extent, Chris Hayes’s) version of the deceptive implication—presented as an indisputable fact—that Manafort’s work for Yanukovych is proof that he (and by extension, Trump) was working for Putin. As Maté shows, that is actually indisputably false. Manafort was working hard to turn Yanukovych away from Russia to the EU and the West, and the evidence of that is abundant and easily available. It was given in the trial, though you’d never know that from reading the NYT or listening to MSNBC. As a former Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “If it weren’t for Paul, Ukraine would have gone under Russia much earlier. He was the one dragging Yanukovich to the West.” And the Democrats know this.

And if you think Cohen is harboring secret knowledge of Trump-Russia collusion that he’s going to turn over to Mueller, take look at Maté’s thread on that.

We are now entering a new period of intense political maneuvering that’s the latest turning point in the bizarre and flimsy “Russiagate” narrative. I’ve been asked to comment on that a number of times over the past two years, and each time I or one of my fellow commentators would say, “Why are we still talking about this?” It was originally conjured up as a Clinton campaign attack on Trump, but, to my and many others’ surprise and chagrin, it somehow morphed into the central theme of political opposition to Trump’s presidency.

Donald Trump is a horrid political specimen. I witnessed his flourishing into apex narcissism and corruption over decades in New York City, as chronicled by the dogged reporter, Wayne Barrett, and I would be surprised if there weren’t financial crimes in his closet that any competent prosecutor could ferret out. Anyone who knows his history knows that this is the kind of dirt the Mueller investigation was most likely to find on Donald Trump; anyone who’s honest knows that this is the kind of dirt it was meant to find. Russiagate was a pretext to dig around everywhere in his closet. Trump was clueless about the trap he was setting for himself, and has been relentlessly foolish in dealing with it. It isa witch hunt, and he’s riding around on his broom, skywriting self-incriminating tweets.

There are a thousand reasons to criticize Donald Trump—his racism, his stupidity, his infantile narcissism, his full embrace of Zionist colonialism with its demand to attack Iran, his enactment of Republican social and economic policies that are destroying working-class lives, etc. That he is a Kremlin agent is not one of them. His election was a symptom of deep pathologies of American political culture that we must address, including the failure of the “liberal” party and of the two-party system itself. That Donald Trump is a Russian agent is not one of them. There are a number of very good justifications for seeking his impeachment, starting with the clear constitutional crime of launching a military attack on another country without congressional authorization. That he is a Kremlin agent is not one of them.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party and its allied media do not want to center the fight on these substantive political issues. Instead, they are centering on this barrage of Russiagate litigation—none of which yet proves, or even charges, Russian “collusion”—which they are using as a substitute for politics. And, in place of opposition, they’re substituting uncritical loyalty to the heroes of the military-intelligence complex and “our democracy” that only a complete fantasist could stomach. I mean, when you get to the point that you’re suspecting John Bolton’s “ties to Russia”….

Now, with the Manafort and Cohen convictions, the Russiagate discourse is moving to a new stage, and it’s unlikely that we will ever stop talking about it, as long as Trump is president. Nothing good can come of it.

Our country is in, and on the verge of, multiple crises that threaten to destroy it. That Donald Trump is a Russian agent is not one of them. Political time is precious.

What a waste.

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Jim Kavanagh edits The Polemicist.

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