Saturday, January 20, 2018

The NRA-Kremlin-Trump Triangle-- Will Mueller Sort That One Out?


Thursday, McClatchy ran a pretty eye-popping piece by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump. The jist of it was that Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank-- a Putin crony-- was illegally funneling cash to the Trump campaign via the NRA.
[T]he NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Trump-- triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that was money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.

Two people with close connections to the powerful gun lobby said its total election spending actually approached or exceeded $70 million. The reporting gap could be explained by the fact that independent groups are not required to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or field operations, including get-out-the-vote efforts.

...Torshin, a leading figure in Putin’s party, has been implicated in money laundering by judicial authorities in Spain, as Bloomberg News first revealed in 2016. Spanish investigators alleged in an almost 500-page internal report that Torshin, who was then a senator, capitalized on his government role to assist mobsters laundering funds through Spanish properties and banks, Bloomberg reported.

A summary obtained by McClatchy of the still-secret report links Torshin to Russian money laundering and describes him as a godfather in a major Russian criminal organization called Taganskaya.

Investigators for three congressional committees probing Russia’s 2016 operations also have shown interest in Torshin, a lifetime NRA member who has attended several of its annual conventions. At the group’s meeting in Kentucky in May 2016, Torshin spoke to Donald Trump Jr. during a gala event at the group’s national gathering in Kentucky in May 2016, when his father won an earlier-than-usual NRA presidential endorsement.

I bet Maddow wishes she could get Torshin for an interview on her show! Yesterday, Bob Bauer, reporting for wrote that "recent commentaries and press reports have tended to downgrade the prospects for a special counsel prosecution of campaign finance charges. Moving ahead of them in the Mueller speculation sweepstakes are obstruction of justice and, in some accounts, business crimes. No one knows, of course, what the special counsel, or the congressional investigating committees, have learned that has not appeared in the press. Steven Bannon’s outburst about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting may have stoked fresh interest in the 'collusion' issues. But it is useful to ask, and to question, why-- knowing what we know and could reasonably expect to discover-- the campaign finance dimension has generally encountered skepticism."

He writes about why it is so difficult to prove that all the help Russia gave Trump-- other than the NRA money-laundering cash into Trump's campaign, which he didn't cover-- has Mueller's investigation probably looking in different directions. Obviously, the Torshin-NRA connection could change all that.
A former senior DOJ attorney recently offered me one theory for why the special counsel may hesitate to bring campaign finance charges. Mueller may fear that case is insufficiently concrete or direct to win over a jury. While the law bars contributions of any kind, including providing campaigns with “things of value,” a jury may struggle with the extraordinary circumstances of Russia’ support for the Trump campaign. Rather than make the more familiar cash contribution, the Russian government generated “things of value” in the form of hacked Clinton and DNC material that WikiLeaks then made public. There is no evidence that Trump or his campaign arranged in advance for the hacking, though they were plainly pleased and eager to have the support and conveyed their receptivity to the Russians.

This experienced attorney suggests that both factors-- the nature of the “things of value” as stolen goods and the absence of direct campaign complicity in illegally acquiring them-- will make prosecutors uneasy about bringing criminal charges. They may feel that the case is so “out there” that it lacks the look or feel of a campaign finance matter in any conventional sense of the term. It has not helped that the shorthand for the Trump-Russia connection has become “collusion,” which is not a legal term.

Prosecutors might well also worry that the recent history of high-profile criminal prosecutions under campaign finance laws is not encouraging. The aggressive case brought against John Edwards failed. In another more obscure prosecution, the government unsuccessfully sought to hold a fundraiser for the Clinton Senate campaign liable for lying about unreported “in-kind” payments for a campaign event. The jury in the Senator Bob Menendez prosecution deadlocked on multiple counts that included alleged corrupt pay-offs in the form of contributions to a Super PAC. Maybe juries, cynical about politics, nonetheless fear “criminalizing” it. Or this skepticism may cause them to distrust the prosecution more than the defense.

The question these considerations raise is whether there is any way to put clear boundaries around the term “things of value” and give it the heft it deserves, making it a firm basis on which to prosecute such a case. It is a fair question, to which there is a reasonably clear answer. It is not necessary to construct a theory that captures the notion behind “collusion” by making the case for illegal “’coordination.” One could, as there is a respectable case for coordination to be made. But there are two other clear grounds for federal campaign finance law liability: soliciting a “thing of value” from a foreign national, and “substantially assisting” the foreign national in spending to influence an election.

The law does not reach every “thing of value” a foreign national might provide to a campaign. However, the coverage of prohibited “things of value” is broad, subject to some specific exceptions. For example, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has concluded that an individual foreign national may volunteer time or services to a campaign. The commission notably struggled with this question before resolving it, first deciding that foreign nationals did not have the benefit of the general exception from the definition of contribution for “uncompensated services.” It later concluded that they did.

What may have given the agency pause, driving the first negative judgment, was the legislative drafters’ intention to keep foreign influence entirely out of American elections. The lead sponsor of a key amendment to the foreign national ban, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, had declared that foreign nationals had “no business” in political campaigns.

After issuing inconsistent opinions, however the FEC ultimately came down on the side of reading the definition of “contribution,” along with the express exceptions, the same for foreign nationals as for U.S. donors. It relied on a specific exemption in the statute and rules. Absent that exemption, the term “thing of value” is comprehensive: whatever is not “money” but is donated or spent for the purpose of influencing an election. Items of opposition research are clearly “things of value.” It is odd that there should be any question about this in the Russia-Trump case, given the evident importance in the campaign of the WikiLeaks hacks.

As my interlocutor suggested, the sticking point for some commentators may be the illegality of these “things of value.” Some may believe that while there is clearly a legal problem here, it is not a campaign finance problem. Nothing in the rule supports this line of argument or justifies this hesitation. If a candidate’s supporter were to steal a fleet of cars and vans for a get-out-the-vote drive, he would be donating a “thing of value.” Whether an item is valuable depends on the use of the good or service, not its origin. As a matter of enforcement policy, it makes little sense to give a campaign a pass on a violation of the campaign finance laws because the contributor or spender trafficked in stolen goods.

This Bill Maher clip below (from last night) doesn't have much to do with the Kremlin coup but... it's hilarious and everyone really needs to watch it. So... take a minute and enjoy yourself:

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At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Makes sense from putin's perspective. What better way to fuck up a society than to buy influence that allows unfettered access to guns -- and by extension, to buy more and more mass shootings.

But americans still voted for these nra assholes... so putin might just be wasting his money.

which Russian said he'd defeat the usa without firing a shot? he just lets us fire all his shots for him.

At 2:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my rifle
This is my gun
Both screw the People
And it's so much FUN!

The longer this farce continues, the less I believe that the corruption can ever be completely cleaned out of the American political system. Between real-life news and what passes for entertainment nowadays, it's what people now expect.

In a way, to borrow the thought of why Southern Whites supported the Confederacy, it's like the Average Joe/Jo feels smug and superior to those who are victimized by such crimes. "At least it wasn't me!" Yet such crimes do victimize us all at some level, especially when the criminality grows and becomes more overt.

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2:31, you give proof that americans are just too goddamn stupid to adequately elect a government that is any good.

We can and do discuss how the government and everyone in it is worthless, hapless, feckless, corrupt and downright pure evil. And all that is certainly true (from the perspective of the 99.9%).

But we very rarely discuss why. The reason is americans are just dumber than shit, AND we refuse to learn from our own, constant, repeated mistakes. And THAT makes us insane.

At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say again that meuller was not hired to get to the bottom of anything. He was hired to stall until November and see if the Rs can make lemonade out of the trump admin.

He's had ample time to find what media (the shit we have for media) has already discovered about the trump admin's connections ($$$ laundering) to Russia and they've already dropped the slam-dunk of the violations of emoluments. They've been given a few sacrificial stooges already and may find a couple more. But if they haven't indicted trump by april, you can consider that I'm correct.

I'm correct.

If the NRA thing exists, meuller is paid to NEVER find it... even if NBC/CBS/ABC does.


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