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ANDREA BERNSTEIN: This is a Trump, Inc. podcast extra. I’m Andrea Bernstein.
We’re still absorbing the news from the testimony of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, before Congress, where he severely criticized the President and described what he believed to be instances of fraud, secrecy, and cover-ups while working for Trump.
Of course, Cohen is complicated. He used to be Trump’s fixer, and gladly terrorized anyone perceived to be a threat to Trump. He’s also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in previous testimony, in addition to several other crimes, and, in May, will begin serving a three-year sentence in federal prison.
But if you have been listening to Trump, Inc. for a while, you’ll know that, in many instances, Cohen provided more details about a lot of the stories we have reported. We now understand much more about the mechanics of Trump’s business deception: how he mingled his campaign, his business, his presidency; how he manipulated laws and rules to make money, and to enforce silence about him and his brand.
We also know, yep, Trump’s top henchman was working on a building a tower in Moscow, was talking to people in the Kremlin, and that Cohen briefed the President and his family all about this during the election, even as Russia was attacking our democracy.
Yet, as we try to absorb everything Cohen has told us, waiting off in the wings is Robert Mueller.
And if what we’re hearing is accurate, sometime soon, the Special Counsel will finish his investigation into Trump and Russia and turn in his final report to the Department of Justice.
When that happens, that is all everyone is going to want to talk about.
So, with that in mind, ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, one of the editors of this podcast, talked to On the Media‘s Brooke Gladstone about what news consumers need to keep in mind when it comes to the Mueller report.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: So start by taking a look at some of the reporting on Mueller that’s led us astray.
CORRESPONDENT: Remember, big picture, we all knew Paul Manafort had a long and extensive link to the Russian government affiliated oligarchs. What is new tonight is this reported meeting with that other group you don’t want to have contact with, WikiLeaks — specifically, its leader Julian Assange.
GLADSTONE: This was first reported by The Guardian in November of 2018. And The Guardian has never retracted the story. Other outlets picked it up. Why should we question its veracity?
ERIC UMANKSY: I put that story into the category of the “permanent exclusive.” An exclusive is a wonderful thing to have. You get the information before everybody else. Then what you want is for other people to conclude the same thing.
GLADSTONE: Now, other people picked it up.
UMANKSY: Right. But here’s a key distinction, if another place is picking it up. If they’re just crediting The Guardian — “The Guardian reports X” — well, that doesn’t mean that they have corroborated it.
GLADSTONE: What sourcing did The Guardian use?
UMANKSY: As I recall, they didn’t get into much detail at all about sourcing. It is always tricky, the level to which you can divulge your sourcing without burning your source. But the rules are to lay out as much as you can to show your evidence. There’s even a hierarchy within anonymous sources. Is it described as “a source”? One is a lot worse than two. Is it somebody specific, or some person — a federal prosecutor, for example. Are they in a position to know? If you don’t have any of that — well, you should probably take it with a grain of salt.
GLADSTONE: Which brings us to another bombshell:
CORRESPONDENT: President Trump is facing new scrutiny today over a report that he told his personal attorney to lie to Congress about his business dealings with Russia. That is according to a BuzzFeed News report citing sources in the Southern District of New York.
UMANKSY: What was really explosive about the BuzzFeed article was, according to two sources, Michael Cohen has given the goods in some fashion or another to federal prosecutors. Has BuzzFeed seen the evidence? Not at all clear. Some people at the Special Prosecutor’s office may well have told BuzzFeed reporters something. I can’t imagine that the BuzzFeed reporters are lying about that. That doesn’t mean that it is actually true or that the evidence exists for it. And there were indications of that in the very first article.
GLADSTONE: The Special Counsel spokesperson, Peter Carr, said that BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s office and characterizations of documents and testimony were not accurate. Does Michael Cohen’s testimony Wednesday change that for you at all?
UMANKSY: No, because it’s actually been pretty consistent with our understanding of how the President works, which is that Michael Cohen said, on the one hand, “I was never instructed by the President to lie. On the other hand, the President didn’t have to say those words. He made it very, very clear to me what he wanted. He did that by constantly asking about the business in Russia, about their tower deal, while literally saying, “You know, Michael, there’s no tower deal.”
GLADSTONE: In a way, the BuzzFeed story may be wrong in the details but right in its conclusion?
UMANKSY: Yes, it is a quantum physics scoop. It is both simultaneously right and wrong.
GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] On October 31st, 2016, before the special investigation even began, The New York Times wrote an article with the headline, “Investigating Donald Trump: FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” How’s that story aged?
UMANSKY: Yeah. It has not aged very well.
GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Can I say that, as we’ve covered stories that go wrong, very often, it comes with anonymous sources from the FBI who use the press, frequently, to sweat suspects, or to shake out some information. They’re concerned with apprehending someone, not telling reporters, necessarily, what is true, but what will have an effect.
UMANSKY: Like any bureaucracy, it’s made up of individuals —
UMANSKY: — with individual agendas. So some people at the FBI clearly had an agenda of giving the impression that they hadn’t found anything. Now, Dean Baquet, the editor of The Times, previously defended the article, saying, “Y’know, the headline overreached, but the substance of it was really fine.” And if you look into the very details, and you do a Talmudic reading, he wasn’t wrong. They hadn’t found clear links, perhaps, but the import is all backwards, right? [GLADSTONE HUMS IN AGREEMENT] There was an active investigation that had enormous and significant questions that was ongoing at that time. The headline — the lead — is everything.
GLADSTONE: I think at this point it’d be useful to define our terms for anybody who’s been reading this coverage and will in the future. “Links to Russia,” that’s a phrase we just talked about. But there are 50 shades of collusion, right? All of which have a different amount of culpability.
UMANKSY: Yeah. In fact, “links to Russia,” whenever I see that kind of thing, it means almost nothing to me.
UMANKSY: Right? It is so vague.
GLADSTONE: I have links to Russia! I reported there for three years.
UMANKSY: As does my family, uh, when they were in the shtetl. [GLADSTONE LAUGHS] The US has a long glorious history, as do most countries, of foreign boogeymans. It’s currently Russia is in that spot with plenty of evidence suggesting it should be. But again, it’s not a shortcut for diligence. The collusion versus conflicts of interest, I think, is crucial and, I think, is not appreciated enough. There’s lots of stuff that’s deeply problematic —
UMANKSY: — before collusion. Just take what we know. A presidential candidate was working on a deal in another country, secretly, that he later lied about — that his colleagues lied about under oath. Why is that problematic? Well, you know, Trump’s operating in his own interests, which turns out, as it happens, potentially to be foreign adversary of the United States’ interests.
GLADSTONE: There are those who would have you believe that the Mueller investigation is a big sham. Many of the President’s party in the Senate, the President himself and, of course, many of his allies in the media. So let’s listen to some of the language they use to discredit the indictments of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and political operative Roger Stone.
POLITICIAN 1: And his indictment is not even for a violent crime. It has nothing to do with Russia or collusion. It’s a process crime. You keep asking the same questions over and over and over hoping they’ll be a mistake. And when there is you indict.
POLITICIAN 2: Can’t get him on an actual crime so the old perjury trap always becomes the fall back in the Mueller camp of Democratic donors.
UMANKSY: Now what do they mean by “process crimes”? You now have the President’s former Campaign Manager, the President’s National Security Adviser, the President’s former lawyer all busted for lying. So I guess you could take the perspective that, “Gee, all they’re being busted for is lying.” [GLADSTONE LAUGHS] Okay. Nobody has been charged with active collusion. The other way to think about that is, “Wait a second! Why are all these guys lying?”
GLADSTONE: Obstruction and cover-ups were how they got Al Capone, President Nixon. There’s no end to people who are apprehended on obstruction because it’s easier. It’s low-hanging fruit. What they’re really after is the tree.
UMANKSY: And it raises substantive questions. I mean, you don’t lie to prosecutors, you don’t lie to Congress. It’s a really bad idea, right? And it’s illegal. So I guess you could dismiss all of that or you can say, “Well, gee, that’s really worthy of further digging into why they did it.”
GLADSTONE: So Mueller means many things [CHUCKLES] to different people. To many people, Mueller represents a deus ex machina, a way to get us out of this mess.
UMANKSY: And this may be a bummer for people, but when they think, “When is the Mueller report going to come?” They’re really thinking like, “When can I, like, open up my laptop and take a look at it?” You may not be able to do that for a long, long time. It is not going to be made public initially. It goes to the Attorney General —
GLADSTONE: Attorney General Bill Barr.
UMANKSY: — appointed by, nominated by President Trump.
GLADSTONE: There’s a little history behind how special prosecutor reports can be released and this really goes back to Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton.
UMANKSY: Right. So after that and all the salacious details that we were all fixated on, Congress felt a little bit icky about it, ultimately, and changed the law so that it doesn’t necessarily become public in all glorious detail.
GLADSTONE: There’s a highlight reel that goes to Congress — that’s mandated. But it’s the Attorney General who decides what those highlights are, and if Congress wants to get hold of the full report, I guess they have to subpoena it.
UMANKSY: They could and then we’re in a whole fakakta legal battle about getting it.
GLADSTONE: So it’s quite possible that those of us hanging on the, uh, Mueller Report will never ever see it.
UMANKSY: And by the way, that’s only the first tier of why Mueller should not be considered, as you said, the “deus ex machina.” Mueller’s job isn’t to look at everything.
GLADSTONE: He is just a piece in the Rube Goldberg investigative contraption that is now at work on Trump — just a piece.
UMANKSY: By the way, a lot of times you’ll see in stories that say, “federal prosecutors in Manhattan,” right? That is not the Mueller people. That is the Southern District of New York who have their own multiple things they are looking into including the inauguration. They’re looking into Trump’s businesses.
UMANKSY: It’s a whole different group of folks.
GLADSTONE: You want to go through them?
UMANKSY: So, then keeping with the New York theme, you have the New York Attorney General looking into the Trump Foundation. Then you have New York tax authorities and the question of evasion of taxes. There’s The New York Times remarkable story.
CORRESPONDENT: The President has always portrayed himself as a master businessman using the Art of the Deal to turn a small loan into a global empire. But now a New York Times investigation claims he was actually given a fortune from his father’s real estate company often through quote, “dubious tax schemes.”
UMANKSY: Then you have the Manhattan D.A. looking into Manafort —
GLADSTONE: Former campaign manager.
UMANKSY: — who is already likely to be staying in governments housing for free for the rest of his life, if you know what I’m saying.
GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Mhm.
UMANKSY: Then you move down the coast a little bit to Maryland and the District of Columbia. They have an emoluments lawsuit.
GLADSTONE: My personal favorite.
UMANKSY: Just because you like the word emoluments?
GLADSTONE: I do.
UMANKSY: The emoluments clause that bans foreign governments from giving free things to the President, right? And then the Congressional investigations. Wednesday, Michael Cohen was speaking at the House Oversight Committee, but that is not the only committee digging in to Trump. You have Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Intelligence. I’m sure I am missing others, and I’m sure there are others that are coming that we haven’t gotten to yet.
GLADSTONE: We have to be skeptical when some people say Mueller is done.
CORRESPONDENT: Robert Mueller’s report may land, literally, at any minute. Now whatever you think of all of this, things are getting very serious, very quickly.
GLADSTONE: What’s in it and how soon it comes out — all of that stuff is purely fueled by rumor and anybody who’s interested in the story really ought to know that by now.
GLADSTONE: I’ve always felt that there was too much coverage of [CHUCKLES] the Mueller report. I think one of your points for news consumers is don’t sweat the small stuff. Huge cast of characters, confusing plot lines — how can you possibly tell the difference between small scale stuff and big, small stuff, and enormous stuff, other than by keeping up with everything?
UMANKSY: There are lots of people paying attention to this. There are people who are paid to pay attention to it.
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UMANKSY: We will synthesize all of this stuff. We will put together the big picture. You know, it’s like following a little kids train tracks that twist all in a million different ways, but still are going to end up at the door. And if you want to pick up the train at the end just wait at the end.
GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And thank you very much for coming on the show.
UMANKSY: Thanks for having me.
GLADSTONE: Eric Umansky is a deputy managing editor with ProPublica and a co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast from ProPublica and WNYC Studios.
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