Wednesday, October 03, 2018

“Frontline”’s Documentary on Donald Trump, Robert Mueller and the Russia Investigation

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s episode of the long-running PBS series Frontline was called “Trump’s Showdown” and was ostensibly about special counsel Robert Mueller and his long-running (so far, almost a year and a half) investigation into whether the government of Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and whether members of Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with them to influence the election in Trump’s direction. The show is actually more than half over before Mueller makes his appearance, and the first hour starts in the heady days of the “transition” between Obama and Trump, and in particular the meeting the heads of the U.S. intelligence agencies sought and got with Trump in December 2016 to tell him about the evidence that Russia had interfered with the election. “There was no equivocation in our language. And we were very direct and very, very clear in terms of what it is that we knew and assessed,” said then-CIA director John Brennan (against whom Trump would take a bizarre revenge a year and a half later by revoking his security clearance), and then-national intelligence director James Clapper added, “There was no pushback because … the evidence that we laid out at the high, highly-classified level was pretty, pretty compelling.” Trump regarded the revelation of Russian interference in the election as an attack on the legitimacy of his Presidency — a position he’s held to this day and, no matter how his Presidency ends, will probably go to his grave holding — and was particularly incensed when then-FBI director James Comey took him aside and told him of the existence of the now-infamous Christopher Steele “dossier,” the compilation of 16 reports former British MI-6 (their equivalent of the CIA and the fictional James Bond’s employer) agent Steele had compiled as a private security agent working for, among other people, the Democratic National Campaign Committee (DNCC) on Trump’s background. Comey regarded his telling Trump about the dossier as an attempt to warn him that this information existed and could be used against him; Trump regarded it as blackmail and seems to have decided then and there to fire Comey, though he didn’t do that until May 2017. 

The film then goes into a flashback to tell a capsule version of the story of Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, the one degree of separation between Trump and the notorious Red-baiter Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin). Cohn “made his bones” as a Communist witch-hunter leading the espionage prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 and then became McCarthy’s chief of staff when the Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate in the 1952 election and McCarthy was appointed head of the government oversight committee. When McCarthy got censured by the U.S. Senate in November 1954 (in a lame-duck session since the Republicans had already lost their Senate majority in the 1954 midterm election — we can hope that history repeats itself!!!!!) Cohn went into a private law practice in New York City and got hired by Donald Trump to mastermind his ascension from his father’s real-estate business in New York’s outer boroughs to the brass ring of Manhattan. Trump biographer and Vanity Fair reporter Marie Brenner said, “Trump was created by the politics of intimidation, taught to him by his mentor Roy Cohn, who really was his alter ego. He was his confidant. He was a, he was an ersatz father. He was the person who Trump went to with any kind of a problem.” Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the two people who most influenced Trump and shaped the kind of person he would become was his actual father, Fred Trump (who, a New York Times special report revealed yesterday, gave Donald a lot more money than the “little loan of $1 million, which I had to pay back with interest” which Donald had always said was the only help he got business-wise from his dad: in fact, Trump’s father apparently gave Donald $60 million — $417 million in 2018 dollars — as part of an elaborate tax-avoidance scheme to leave his money to his kids without having to pay federal taxes on it; according to the New York Times, thanks to his dad’s machinations Donald was a multi-millionaire at age three!), and Roy Cohn. 

Another Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair (who also wrote about the late NBC news reporter Jessica Savitch and Princess Diana), said, “Roy Cohn had 20 years of being a really aggressive, no holds barred, go for the jugular, fight back, anybody says something to you, throw it back at them, guy. He was famous for that behavior.” (The show does not also mention that Cohn was both a notorious homophobe and a closeted Gay man who was disbarred in New York in 1986 just a few months before he died of AIDS-related complications — a duality which led Tony Kushner to make Cohn the principal villain of his play Angels in America.) Trump was so enamored of Cohn’s style that apparently during his Presidency he’s actually asked staff people, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — which led one commentator to say that the attorney Trump really wanted to represent him in the Russia investigation had been dead for 30 years — and one gets the impression he was hoping to groom Cohn’s near-namesake Michael Cohen as Cohn’s replacement, a combination attorney and “fixer” who could be counted on to bribe porn stars and other people presenting Trump with the threat of inconvenient revelations. (Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford makes a cameo appearance even though her case really doesn’t fit into the broad scope of the Russia investigation.) One of Trump’s problems was that Cohen was a match for Cohn’s unscrupulousness and venom (this show includes a replay of the famous conversation in which Cohen tried to stop an anti-Trump story from appearing on the Daily Beast Web site by threatening the reporter, Tim Mak, on the phone — “I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. Do you understand me? Don't think you can hide behind your pen because it's not going to happen. … I'm more than happy to discuss it with your attorney and with your legal counsel because, motherfucker, you're going to need it”) but not for Cohn’s street smarts. 

Though almost none of the information on this program is new, the portrait of Trump that emerges is of a man honed by his years in the New York real-estate business to a deep unscrupulousness and suspicion of everyone else’s motives: he really believes that everyone else in the world is as vicious, self-centered and egomaniacal as he is. So when he had to deal with former FBI director Comey, who lives by a sense of self-righteousness and sanctimony (the principal negative descriptions of Comey by almost everyone who’s ever criticized him) in which he frequently believes himself to be, as the show put it, “the only honest person in the room,” sparks were bound to fly. I suspected (and wrote at the time) that when Comey did his sensational last-minute revelation 11 days before the 2016 election that he was re-opening the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (a decision a lot of people, including Clinton herself, are convinced was the deciding factor that threw the election to Trump), he was doing so because he feared that Clinton would win the election and by helping Trump he was ensuring that his directorship of the FBI would survive a Trump presidency. (Comey’s own explanation is that he expected Clinton to win but the Republicans to keep control of Congress, and if he had sat on the information the Republicans would have investigated him and the FBI over it for the duration of Clinton’s presidency.) If Comey hoped that helping Trump win would get him to keep his job, he woefully misread Trump: Trump saw Comey as the sort of self-righteous stuffed shirt who’d already screwed former President George W. Bush on the issue of wireless surveillance of Americans and would screw him, too, if he had the chance. So Trump and Comey were on a collision course from day one and Trump was determined to fire him as soon as he had a pretext, though as he admitted to NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview (which I’d just read about in Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book Unhinged — she recalled carefully briefing him to prepare for this interview and then watched as Trump totally forgot about everything he’d been briefed on and gave a damaging interview — Omarosa says it was a common experience in the White House to be tackled on the one-yard line by someone who was supposed to be on your team) in which he said he really fired Comey over “the Russia thing.” 

The Frontline program also shows the bizarre meeting Trump had in the Oval Office the day after he fired Comey with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak, in which he basically boasted that by firing Comey he’d made the FBI’s Russia investigation go away — a meeting whose existence was carefully kept secret from the U.S. media but which we found out about anyway because the Russian media sent an official photographer to record it and published the story in a propagandistic context. Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung wrote a story quoting Trump as having essentially said to these two high-ranking Russian officials, “We’re going to have a great relationship. There’s this investigation. It’s just become a total irritant for me. … Jim Comey’s firing lifted a great weight from me. The guy was a nut job.” The Comey firing led to the bizarre period of a week and a half in which, according to a recent New York Times article, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein (left in charge of the FBI’s Russia investigation by attorney general Jeff Sessions’ recusal — a “sin” for which Trump has never forgiven him and which he’s obsessed about ever since — and who was resentful that his letter critiquing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation was used as the pretext to fire Comey), mused about remedies like secretly recording his conversations with Trump and lobbying the Cabinet to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and install Mike Pence as “Acting President.” Instead of doing either of those things (though the Times’ revelation would certainly give Trump the pretext to fire Rosenstein, as I’m convinced he intends to do just after the midterms, especially if the Republicans keep control of both houses of Congress and Trump therefore won’t have to worry about impeachment if he does the general house-cleaning he so clearly wants — firing both Sessions and Rosenstein and telling his new attorney general to fire Mueller and close down all Justice Department investigations of his campaign and Russia) Rosenstein chose the route of appointing a special counsel, and picking Mueller — until this appointment a highly regarded Washington veteran, a Republican who’d served under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and been the FBI director for 12 years, longer than anyone else except J. Edgar Hoover — as the counsel. 

What’s been virtually forgotten given the success of the Republican witch hunt (I probably shouldn’t use their term for the Mueller investigation, but it’s irresistible) against Mueller and his probe is that originally his selection by Rosenstein as special counsel was heralded by leaders on both sides of the partisan divide. Even Republican bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich (who masterminded the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives after 42 consecutive years of Democratic control and did a lot to establish the current no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs political climate) hailed Mueller as a basically fair person who would conduct an impartial investigation and let the chips fall where they may. The Frontline documentary’s second half chronicles the three phases of President Trump’ approach to the investigation. At first he stalked the halls of the White House, demanding, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — upset at even the hint of defiance from Jeff Sessions, his sense that Sessions (like Comey) had some sort of abstract devotion to the rule of law or the independence of the Justice Department or something else that got in the way of offering the blood oath of “loyalty” Trump demands of his subordinates as President the way he did as owner and CEO of the Trump Organization. Trump was ready to fire Sessions in the late summer of 2017, with the idea that with a new Attorney General in place, one who wouldn’t be bound by Sessions’ recusal and who would fire both Rosenstein and Mueller — but it didn’t happen because Sessions, a former U.S. Senator from Alabama, still had some powerful friends in the Senate, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped the message on Trump that the Senate would be too busy for the rest of the year to consider confirming a new Attorney General. (Since then the Senate Republicans have caved to Trump on the issue of Jeff Sessions’ tenure, as they have on absolutely everything else: Lindsey Graham is now saying things like, “The President is entitled to have an Attorney General he can trust.”) 

When that didn’t work, Trump hired two experienced Washington, D.C.-based attorneys, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, and instructed them to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and in particular to provide them all the documents they requested and to allow them to interview White House staff members. As this show documents, Trump took what Richard Nixon called “the hang-out road” based on the promise Dowd and Cobb made him that if he cooperated, the Mueller investigation would end soon — by Thanksgiving 2017, and when that didn’t happen by the new year. When the new year arrived and Mueller was still investigating — and indicting key people in Trump’s campaign like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort — Trump’s attitude took a 180° turn back to his own basic (and basest) instincts and the lessons Roy Cohn had taught him all those years ago. Dowd and Cobb left the case (the Frontline documentary does not mention the accusation in Bob Woodward’s recent book Fear: Trump in the White House that Dowd ran a mock interrogation of Trump as a practice session in case Trump sat down for an interview with Mueller, and Trump claimed he was “a great witness” when Dowd felt he did so poorly that Dowd concluded the case was unwinnable and quit the next day) and their replacement was former New York U.S. Attorney (in which capacity he had sworn in James Comey as one of his assistant) and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A lot of people have joked that Trump hired Giuliani less to be his lawyer than to play his lawyer on TV, on Trump’s favorite network Fox News in particular. The Frontline show contains a film clip of Giuliani’s first TV appearance as Trump’s lawyer, in which he practically screams in that New York screech we’ve become all too familiar with, “The president has done nothing wrong. Read my lips: Nothing wrong!” 

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and former civil liberties lawyer turned Right-wing hero and to-the-death Trump defender, was interviewed by Frontline as part of their attempt to make a fair-minded documentary and noted that Giuliani’s tactic was less a legal strategy than a public-relations one to try the case in the court of public opinion and undercut any ability by the Democrats or Trump’s political enemies to make the case for impeaching Trump and removing him from office. The show quotes Giuliani as saying, “Our jury, as it should be, is the American people. And the American people, yes, are Republicans, largely, independents, pretty substantially, and even some Democrats now question the legitimacy of it” — the Mueller investigation. Frontline also claims that one of the things that got under Trump’s skin was when the Mueller investigators started looking into the private finances of the Trump Organization, which Trump had once said was a “red line” that in his mind would justify firing Mueller. Trump got the message that Mueller meant business regarding his private finances when the FBI did a pre-dawn “no-knock” raid on Michael Cohen’s home, office and a hotel room he was staying in when his home was being remodeled. “No-knock” raids are part of the overall assault on the Constitution in general and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in particular motivated by the so-called “War on Drugs,” in which people accused of drug-related crimes have had their Constitutional protections of due process systematically stripped away. The theory behind “no-knock” raids was that you wanted to catch these dastardly drug dealers by surprise before they could flush the drugs down the toilet or otherwise dispose of them as best as they could if the cops actually knocked on their doors, and according to the investigators in their legal documents Cohen was targeted for a “no-knock” raid because they feared if they knocked, he’d destroy the documents they were after — including, it turned out, the secret tape recordings he made of his meetings and phone calls with Trump. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to eight felonies, at least two of which (relating to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep quiet about their alleged sexual experiences with Trump) he said in his plea that he committed because Donald Trump, his employer and now President of the United States, ordered him to as part of his job. 

The Frontline documentary ends open-endedly because the task of writing the end to the story has basically fallen to the American electorate, or at least that section of it that bothers to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. If Democrats regain control of at least one house of Congress (and right now, according to Nate Silver’s Web site, they have a 75 percent chance of taking the House but only a 2 in 7 chance of winning the Senate), there will at least be serious Congressional investigations of Trump, his Russia connections, his finances and everything else that’s been rotten, underhanded and corrupt about his Presidency (and his life in the private sector before that), not so much because the Democrats are determined to throw that kind of dirt around but because they know the only chance they have of defeating Trump for re-election in 2020 is to blacken his name enough that the Democrats can mobilize their fickle base and vote him out with a candidate who is likely to have almost none of the flash and charismatic larger-than-life appeal of Trump. If the Republicans keep control of both houses of Congress, it’s all over: Trump will be able to install a new attorney general and can shut down the Mueller investigation root and branch, firing not only Mueller but also all the U.S. attorneys to whom Mueller, in an apparent attempt to protect the investigation even if he gets fired and his office of special counsel is closed, has parceled out bits of it. The greatest lesson of the Trump-Mueller “showdown” is that it’s yet another piece of evidence of how much, contrary to the late New York Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous comment that “everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts,” in today’s America, with a polarized political system and a polarized media system producing a polarized electorate, everyone is entitled to their own set of facts, and in particular which of the two dominant narratives — the one peddled by the legacy media like the national broadcast networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the competing narrative of Right-wing talk radio, Fox News and the local TV stations under the ideological control of owners like Liberty and Sinclair — they patronize and believe. 

In George Orwell’s 1984 one of the ways the Inner Party, the ruling class of Orwell’s dystopian dictatorship, kept in power was by literally manipulating the media and the historical record so the only “truth” the people could obtain was whichever one the Party wanted them to believe at any given time. “The mutability of the past is a central tenet of Ingsoc,[1]” Orwell wrote. “Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.” Donald Trump obviously does not have the kind of total control over either the written (and audio-visual) records of the past or of the minds of the American people the Inner Party did in 1984. For one thing, he doesn’t have an entire department of the Ministry of Truth (the Inner Party’s propaganda agency) devoted to destroying records that contradict whatever he now says he said at any given juncture. (Ironically, given how many modern-day records are stored on computers as digital files instead of on more relatively permanent media like paper or film, the repeated destruction of records that contradict the official view of truth at any given moment, and their replacement by records that supported the new official “truth,” would be far easier now than it was in Orwell’s time.) When Trump says that he always said X or never said Y, pesky reporters and media outlets often have a way of turning up video footage or printouts from his Twitter feed or other documentary evidence that he did indeed say what he now says he never said. 

What Trump does have, however, is a well-trained segment of about 40 percent of the American people who will willingly believe everything he says regardless of the documentary evidence against this. We’ve seen this in polls about the Mueller investigation and more recently in the ongoing controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a fact that Kavanaugh and Dr Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of attempting to rape her when they were both high-school students in 1982, spoke before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27, 2018 and said certain things that were documented and recorded. But what people made of that hearing has fallen along the all too predictable political fault lines, with the cadre of the American people who are convicted and conditioned to believe everything Trump, the Republican Party, talk radio and Fox News tell them about the world saw Brett Kavanaugh as an honest truth-teller righteously calling out the forces of political correctness — the Democrats, the accusers against him and a vast Left-wing conspiracy headed by Bill and Hillary Clinton — to defend himself and his name against an unfair charge cooked up by his nefarious political enemies. Meanwhile, people on the other side of the political divide would watch the same hearing — the same footage of the same people saying the same things — and conclude that Dr. Ford was telling the truth and Kavanaugh was a vicious, lying scumbag as well as a highly partisan figure who shouldn’t be a judge on the highest court in the land. 

American politics have become so polarized that people no longer just disagree about the meaning of a common, agreed-upon set of facts, or the public policies that should follow from those realities. They disagree on what the facts are, and like the Inner Party in 1984 Trump and his staff have gone out of their way to deny even the idea of an objective “truth” uncolored by the red or blue glasses through which people observe it. That’s how early on in the Trump administration Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway were able to defend Trump’s claim that the crowd watching his inauguration was the largest in history against the photographic evidence that far more people had attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 than Trump’s in 2017 by citing “alternative facts.” It’s also what Rudolph Giuliani meant when he told an NBC news panel that “truth isn’t truth” — the full context in which he said that was that James Comey had one story about why Trump fired him, Trump had another, and because Robert Mueller and James Comey were friends Mueller was going to believe Comey’s story over Trump’s and possibly prosecute Trump for perjury simply because he had an alternative narrative he wished to present under oath.

[1] — The official name, short for “English Socialism,” of the ideology under which the ruling party of 1984 claimed to rule.