Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: August 1, 2018 Guest: Chris Coons, Anthony Gerstein
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Rachel does have the night off. We have a pretty big show. Today was day two of the federal criminal trial of the president`s campaign chairman. Prosecutors called as witnesses today several people who sold Paul Manafort expensive clothes, cars and houses, items Manafort bought through the secretive international wire payments.
Now, one important thing we learned from what happened in court today, this judge is holding Mueller`s prosecutors to the line, limiting their questions and some of how they present key evidence on Manafort to the jury. Now, tonight, a former prosecutor who has tried these kind of cases and was actually inside that courtroom today joins me to explain if what the judge is up to could hurt Mueller`s case.
There are also reports tonight about the Russian woman charged with trying to carry out the government influence campaign through the NRA right here in the U.S. and also about people who appear to have been her American co- conspirators. That is a big story. We have one of the reporters who has gotten a very significant scoop about it.
But we begin with something actually far more troubling than any of that. And it began last March. Let`s set the scene because it is critical. Donald Trump had been in office just six weeks.
Trump`s national security adviser was already out. His attorney general facing immense pressure. And it was on March 1st when "The Washington Post" exposed that Jeff Sessions participated in two secret encounters with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Now, that was, to put it nicely, a ways away from Sessions` own testimony at his own confirmation hearing that he hadn`t had, quote, communications with the Russians.
Now, we now know that internally at the DOJ, there was already a process going of career lawyers recommending that Jeff Sessions recuse himself from the probe, that he had an obligation on that. And this was a key inflection point. Jeff Sessions could have taken the DOJ guidance to recuse. He could have also ignored it. In other words, it was a decision to make. Donald Trump at that moment could have stayed out of it or at least stayed out of it in the public realm.
But here`s what happened. The next day, March 2nd, Trump had this very big grand appearance. He was arriving via helicopter on the USS Gerald Ford, this was the navy`s very new and quite expensive warship.
Now, Trump spoke to sailors there and then the traveling press corps, during this big fancy appearance was with Trump and they put an important question to the president. So, watch this key moment. This is one of those unpredictable you could even say random times where you see this normally routine even frustrating job of these traveling reporters, you see it become pivotal. You see it become potential criminal evidence, because watch as these reporters ask Trump whether Jeff Sessions potentially recusal on grounds he was too close to the Trump campaign should happen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Mr. President, should Sessions recuse himself from investigations into your campaign and Russia?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don`t think so at all. I don`t think so.
REPORTER: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador?
TRUMP: I don`t think he should do that at all.
REPORTER: When were you an aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?
TRUMP: I wasn`t aware at all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: That was a quick but pivotal moment. Trump did two things, he inappropriately pressured Sessions not to recuse and then if you listen closely, he contributed to the DOJ`s argument for Sessions recusal. Because the DOJ`s standard is whether a person is too close to the subject of the probe, whether Jeff Sessions would beak be more of a Trump campaign surrogate who happened to be attorney general rather than acting as an independent law enforcement officer.
Now, if Sessions didn`t recuse after that statement, it would have made him look even more like he was doing Trump`s bidding. And Trump apparently didn`t know that making that statement would also as just a general matter of embarrassment, make him look weak and out of the loop about a decision that was already done, because there were reports that show the internal DOJ process had already resulted in Sessions` accepting that nonpartisan recusal recommendation from the career staff earlier that week and that Jeff Sessions was already working with DOJ officials on writing the very rationale they would soon release to the public.
In fact, it was barely an hour after Trump put that public pressure on Sessions to stay in charge of the probe to not recuse that Jeff Sessions stepped out to the world with a fateful announcement that would actually change the arc of this entire probe. It would enrage Trump. It would make Rod Rosenstein a new household name in every -- well, every household that follows the news these days.
And then what happened next is at issue and it`s in the news tonight. Donald Trump responding with a mix of call it personal rage and a kind of management impotence by which I mean that he freaked out enough that a lot of people heard about it but did not follow through to actually do the firing of Jeff Sessions that he initially demanded in his initial freak- out. So, there were credible sources able to tell both "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" that Trump was fuming about firing Sessions that he told his aides he wanted it done. Of course, we know he did not get it done.
And that`s not all. Donald Trump was apparently unaware -- completely unaware of a pretty key rule in legal recusals. I`m talking, of course, about no backsies. The DOJ doesn`t recommend a legal recusal for say some factual reason and then just take it back.
That`s what the Trump was demanding. He told Sessions to take back the recusal from the Russia probe. So, in our timeline, this was now just a few days later, March 4th and Sessions goes down to Mar-a-Lago where a, quote, the president objected to his decision to recuse himself. Mr. Trump, "The New York Times" reported who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry berated Sessions, told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request. Sessions refused. Confrontation being investigated by Bob Mueller as are the president`s private and public attacks on Sessions and the efforts to get him to resign.
So, let`s take this all together. There are many people I`m sure you know many people who say this, that Donald Trump is somehow ignorant or clueless or dumb. You hear that from time to time.
And Donald Trump may certainly be ignorant of all kinds of things, certainly the things he doesn`t care about. But the evidence in this mounting case shows that he is very informed and very canny about using a whole range of tactics to get what he wants in this criminal probe.
Now, here is how that is key to where this probe is heading. Donald Trump deploys both public and private means to do these things that look like evidence of obstruction of justice and that`s key to what is the disturbing news tonight.
So, let`s go back into the timeline. Donald Trump presses Sessions and that became part of Mueller`s probe itself because had he an interest which, quote, demonstrates Sessions` overlooked role as a key witness into the investigation into whether Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself. And `The Times" reported, Mueller`s investigators pressed current and former White House officials about Trump`s treatment of Sessions and whether they believe the president was trying to impede the investigation by pressuring him.
The attorney general also interviewed at length by Mueller`s investigators in January and the four dozen or so questions Mueller wants to ask Trump, eight relate to Sessions. Among them, what efforts did you make him to try to get him to reverse his recusal?
Now, Trump`s public attacks and pressure on Sessions were back by these private efforts, which Mueller`s investigating. And that`s the context for what Trump did today. And while we don`t usually treat Trump`s tweets as news stories because they`re not news, they`re often ploys, and some of them are just lies, this one is important.
Quote: this is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now before it continues to stain our country any further. Mueller`s totally conflicted. His 17 angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to the USA.
So, what are we looking at there? We`re seeing the public part. What else is Trump doing to shut down the probe in private tonight? That`s a big question.
You can also see how this is evidence of obstruction that concerns even Trump`s own lawyers because their argument today was hey, no, Trump did not say what he said, that his call to stop the probe was not really a call to stop the probe, not an order. Mueller`s investigators may disagree with that. They are probing how the president talks to and pressures the DOJ.
And one Democrat, a former prosecutor, spoke to how this all fits into criminal intent.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Clearly, this statement is serious and substantial evidence of criminal intent, even if it doesn`t constitute a crime itself. The president is coming close to actual committing the crime of obstruction of justice if not crossing that line already. And these tweets adding to each other amount to evidence of criminal intent.
There is now right now a clearly credible case of obstruction of justice against the president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: So, why is this happening now?
Well, there`s a new report that suggests it`s not just the Manafort trial which shows what happens to the defendants who don`t cooperate with Mueller but also that Trump learned within the last day the special counsel will limit the scope of questioning and would like to ask questions both orally and written for the president to respond to. In other words, there is still serious pressure for an interview.
And according to ABC News, sources familiar with the president`s reactions Wednesday, that was the genesis for his early morning tweet storm.
Rachel has pinpointed that a lot of important issues today require us to focus on what people do. Not just what they say. The question that could determine the future of the Trump presidency tonight involves whether Trump is trying to do something with what he`s saying to his attorney general and to the other DOJ and FBI officials that he`s -- well he`s attacked, berated, undercut and, of course, who he`s tried to remove from office.
Remember, this is the still the only American presidency to ever successfully seek the removal of the top two officials at the FBI. They`re now both potential witnesses to obstruction. And it`s the only presidency in history which is under investigation for the unsuccessful efforts to remove both an attorney general and a special prosecutor himself as the probe remains open. And that, of course, is just what we know based on what`s in public and what is leaked.
So, one more thing as you take it all together. There is another reason why Donald Trump may be writing things about Sessions that look self- incriminating on Twitter, that have his own lawyers saying they weren`t what they are. Now, this theory requires to you entertain the belief that the president is more canny than clueless.
Donald Trump`s team has good reason to have learned by now that Mueller`s case uses Donald Trump`s past efforts to squeeze and oust Jeff Sessions. Mueller`s case may already have strong evidence of that, provable evidence. And so knowing that it looks bad, Donald Trump may want to re-up the worst parts of this himself and say, how bad can it be if it`s what I just tweeted?
I turn now to a reporter who has been leading much of our knowledge about this. Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter for the "Washington Post." She has a new story tonight on the new Mueller interview offer to Trump which, of course, is central to all of this.
Thank you so much for being here on a busy night for you.
CAROL LEONNIG, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Glad to be here. And thanks for the good questions you guys always ask. It`s been a roller coaster of a day.
MELBER: I think that`s fair to say. And it`s -- there`s some theme parks open well into the evening. And we may still be on the roller coaster at this moment.
Given your reporting, walk us through what you have learned about Mueller`s counteroffer for a potential Trump interview and why do you think he`s willing to limit some questions?
LEONNIG: I`m told that Mueller`s team presented a counter-proposal in this seven-month long negotiation over the special counsel being able to interview the president about evidence suggesting that the president obstructed justice or sought to thwart a criminal probe. And in this counter proposal, what Mueller did was essentially say, look, I`ll reduce the number of questions that are about the scrutiny I have of the president over claims that he obstructed justice.
Remember that Rudy Giuliani, the president`s lawyer, had offered Mueller the dangle of an interview with the president if they didn`t ask any questions about his time as president and any questions that they had about potential obstruction.
MELBER: And so, when we are interpreting this, what does it really mean? It means a slightly shorter interview but Mueller has an obligation not to give up anything that he thinks is central to getting the facts.
LEONNIG: I think it could -- you know, we don`t know what Mueller is thinking but I think there are two very likely possibilities. One, Mueller wants Trump to sit down with him. He wants the president in the room and as we`ve reported at "The Washington Post" since I think since March, Mueller has indicated to the president`s lawyers. I need to know whether or not the president had corrupt intent when he took some of the actions that he took, most importantly firing FBI Director Jim Comey.
And so, he wants the president in the room with him one way or another. And the second seems to me likely possibility about this counteroffer is, he wants to show that he`s willing to negotiate a little. And not be sort of stoic and stubborn. So, this is a little move closer to Trump`s request or the Trump legal team`s request. But I even hear within the sources close to the president and in the White House that they`re not so sure Mueller moved that far but he certainly made the effort to appear he was reducing some of the questions.
MELBER: Do you have any hints over whether he is prepared to go to the Supreme Court if Trump won`t sit down and how do you trigger that? When do you do that?
LEONNIG: So if one signal we know very clearly that Mueller has given the Trump legal team is he would like to avoid a subpoena fight.
And there are all sorts of good reasons for that, Ari, like he knows that that will take months. There`s very little chance that the court of appeals which would certainly be involved on the road to the Supreme Court would move with any alacrity. This could takes months to fight over an interview and a constitutional question that`s never been answered, can you force the president to the table to talk about acts as president?
And if there`s one thing that we know, as well, Mueller has gathered a lot of evidence. He`s interviewed a ton of people. He`s presaged in his questions that he`s hinted at to the Trump legal team what he`s interested in. And obstruction is a central piece of what he wants to get from the president.
MELBER: And you say obstruction and that brings us to the most damning and perhaps the most obvious question that I`m sure many of us watching would like your view on. Why do you think Donald Trump wrote something today on the internet that was so blatantly self-incriminating about potential obstruction of this case which is an investigation into his obstruction?
LEONNIG: So, two things.
I agree with all the prosecutors that I`ve spent a lot of time with as a reporter in federal courts all over. I agree with them that any statement you make that suggests that you`re threatening or intimidating or encouraging a certain course of action is not a crime but certainly goes to your state of mind and could be part of a mosaicing that any prosecutor could lay out, arguing, look, the president was really signaling to, you know, tens of millions of people this is what he wanted. And that is not a crime but it builds the color around the state of mind of the actor, the president.
The second thing is your question about why did he tweet. The president has shown a talent for sending a message early in the morning either about his anger or about the topic he wants all of us to be talking about. And in this instance, I believe he`s been watching a lot of coverage of Paul Manafort`s trial. Obviously, we`re mot live inside that trial but he`s watching the cable news, minute by minute updates.
And he wants to send a signal about how he feels this is wrong. And it could be just a signal to his base, and nothing more.
MELBER: Well, you said it was a mosaic of sorts. I wonder whether it`s a self-portrait titled evidence of obstruction, given how drastically blatant it was.
Carol Leonnig, we always appreciate your reporting and your nuance -- thank you so much.
LEONNIG: Thank you.
MELBER: I turn now to Senator Chris Coons who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was rebutting Rudy Giuliani`s assertion today that collusion is not a crime. He read aloud from the U.S. Code the actual statues that the senator notes would be broken if there was collusion with Russia and election interference, which certainly adds to the public records, Senator.
I want to start with your view of whether what Donald Trump wrote on the Internet today is evidence of potential obstruction.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, it`s certainly evidence of his state of mind how he views the ongoing Mueller investigation and of what he thinks should happen. He`s saying this morning that Jeff Sessions should shut down the Mueller investigation which he calls a rigged witch hunt as a number of commentators have said so far this evening could be entered into evidence as something that suggests what his state of mind has been.
I`ll remind you this goes all the way back to his Lester Holt interview following his firing of FBI director James Comey. Whether he said that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he fired Jim Comey, the former FBI director. So I think there`s abundant evidence that obstruction and intent to interfere with the ongoing investigation into whether or not Russia committed some conspiracy with Trump campaign in order to violate our federal election laws.
That`s something that`s been out there in plain view now for months. Frankly, my answer as to why President Trump did in this morning is a combination of appealing to his base, delegitimizing the Mueller investigation and he frankly partly just can`t help himself.
MELBER: Can`t help himself, right, because as we`ve reported, his lawyer`s reaction shows that this was coming from the top and that they wanted to say it didn`t do what it did.
Getting to your other piece, you know, sometimes it feels like we`re all going through a type of law school together in this era. And you would be one of our voluntary professors I suppose. Collusion, conspiracy, criminal hacking and thief, fraud against the United States, foreign campaign contributions, those are all felonies that relate to what has been alleged in 2016.
Walk us through your point about what crimes constitute collusion.
COONS: Well, first, the term collusion here is being used casually. What it`s really referring to I`ll remind you is a conspiracy to break federal election laws.
The federal election law and I think it is Title 52 of the U.S. Code, Section 30121, says that it is a crime to solicit or accept a thing of value from a foreign national in order to influence a federal election. I`m summarizing what is a much longer paragraph.
But essentially, that`s what it says is that a foreign national can`t contribute either money or a thing of value and an American can`t solicit or receive a thing of value from a foreign national in connection with a federal election. And that`s really the crux of what`s being investigated here is whether or not the Russian well-documented wide scale Russian effort by dozens of military intelligence officers to influence the American election and to offer hacked e-mails was in some way either solicited or accepted by the Trump campaign team.
That`s why I think the developments in recent days that Michael Cohen may well be willing to testify that President Trump knew about the June 9th Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton could be a key turning point here. There`s lots of public evidence of an enthusiasm by the highest levels of the Trump campaign to accept information derogatory to Hillary Clinton and his campaign. There`s now lots of evidence that Robert Mueller`s investigation has made public through indictments of Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the campaign.
What`s been missing so far is something that connects point A to point B and makes it into a conspiracy. That may well it be the evidence that Robert Mueller is preparing to present. I`ll also, just, Ari, in closing remind you that lying to federal investigators is also a federal offense and sometimes things that are said on Twitter, whether it`s by Donald Trump Jr. or by Paul Manafort or others, what really ends up being the thing that hangs them up is having testified in front of a committee or to an FBI investigator one way and it being proven that the facts are the opposite.
So, I think those are the three core issues here. Filing federal election law, working in partnership to break the American laws which is conspiracy and then lying to investigators most of the indictments that have so far come out from the Mueller investigation move along one of those three tracks. I expect we`ll be seeing more indictments in the near future.
MELBER: So, Senator, to paraphrase it, sounds like they were right to say collusion is not a crime because collusion is like four crimes.
COONS: That`s right. What we are commonly referring to as collusion is a complex series of violations of federal election law, of truthfulness to investigators, and the commonly known crime of conspiracy which is I think 18 USC 371. That`s just working with more than one other foreign break federal law. That`s simple conspiracy.
Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, an expert on many of these issues, I really do appreciate your time tonight.
COONS: Thank you, Ari.
MELBER: Now, still ahead, there could be a big development in Paul Manafort`s trial. We have that former federal prosecutor who was in the courtroom today in just a moment.
MELBER: Now, to the trial. Mueller`s prosecutors moving fast in day two of Paul Manafort`s trial which is what`s generally required in this Rocket Docket. In fact, the prosecutors say they`re way ahead of schedule on this trial and they could rest their case as early as next week.
Now, many witnesses may be afraid of Mueller`s team but the judge there, T.S. Ellis, is definitely not. Of course, he`s not supposed to be. On day one, seconds after prosecutor Ozu Asonye started delivering his opening statement, Judge Ellis cut him off.
The prosecutor saying a man in the court did not believe the law did not apply to him, not tax law, not banking laws. This man collected over $60 million for his work in a country called Ukraine but this man didn`t want to report his income so he used shell companies and foreign bank accounts to funnel and then, boom, the judge interrupts, the evidence you contend will show this? The prosecutor says; yes, Your Honor.
And Judge Ellis then does a little smackdown. Well, that`s the way I would put it, Mr. Asonye. And the prosecutor tried to continue saying to funnel millions of dollars -- and Judge Ellis collapsed back and says, did you hear what I said? Then we get a more typical response. The prosecutor says yes, Your Honor. The judge says, all right, do it that way please.
Now, Ellis pressed both sides. He is a known stickler. He told Manafort`s lawyers they also must speak in terms of evidence and not sweeping claims, telling them, quote, it`s preferable if you couch in this case your argument or your defense in terms of, quote, you will hear evidence that, dot, dot, dot.
Now, right out of the gate, that has been the issue. Today, day two, Judge Ellis, he didn`t mellow out at all. At one point, he`s scolded the prosecutors and defense team to rein in their facial expressions.
Quote: It`s been reported that lawyers upon leaving the bench roll their eyes, communicating to those who are watching them essentially, why do we have to put up with this idiot judge? Don`t do that. Obviously, if I were to see it, I might be a little upset.
You can see that running a courtroom sometimes is no different than dealing with well, your average teenager, at least in the view of this judge on the record. Put aside the facial expressions, though, and what`s going on is the judge is trying to trim the sails of these aggressive lawyers and that includes Mueller`s aggressive prosecutors. Judge Ellis took issue, for example, with the word oligarch, arguing an oligarchy is just despotic power exercised by a privileged few and that by that definition, principals of high schools are oligarchs, too.
What he was getting at what I want to avoid somehow to use the term "oligarch" to mean Manafort was consorting and being paid by people who are criminals. The only thing we really know about them is if they had a lot of money. The word oligarch has come to have a pejorative meaning. And he then, this is what legally matters, he told them, look, find another term to use.
Almost immediately, not being able to say the word oligarch, that`s kind of like a banana peel for the prosecution and I`ll read from what we`re learning from this big trial. The payments were made on behalf of Mr. Yanukovych by the -- I would say oligarchs the prosecutor said but by wealthy businessman.
And Judge Ellis did want to know who paid that money to Yanukovych. The prosecutor said those are the oligarchs. And Judge Ellis said, all right, those are the individuals who financed it. Don`t use that term. Now, we go back to what good lawyers do. They said, understood.
Now, there was also a matter of whether the prosecutors can use photographs of Manafort`s very expensive suits as evidence. There were brand names that were basically Greek to this judge. He said, I can`t recognize these names. If it doesn`t say Men`s Wearhouse, I don`t know it. That got something of a laugh in his courtroom.
But then what happened did not. And again, we`re showing you this because it matters legally. Judge Ellis hinting that these pictures of Manafort`s very fancy suits may never get to the jury.
Now, the big curveball came when Judge Ellis started questioning other evidence that pertained to Rick Gates. That`s, of course, Manafort`s former deputy who Mueller got to cooperate. Gates` testimony, of course, has the potential to be the most riveting pivotal portion of this trial, maybe of the whole Mueller prosecution up to point, because we are talking about the deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump who flipped.
But look at this. Judge Ellis says, quote: You`re going to offer up Mr. Gates, aren`t you? And Mueller`s prosecutor says: Your Honor, we`re not sure if we are. He may testify in this case, Your Honor. He may not.
That is one of those things that sounds very measured. We may do this, we may not. But actually has really big repercussions of what we all are going to learn out of this case.
So, why would the prosecution be considering not putting what has been described as their star witness on the stand? It`s a big question.
I`m joined now by Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor who is at the trial today, and Josh Gerstein, who is in there too reporting as "Politico`s" correspondent and he`s been covering the Manafort case since the beginning.
Good evening to both of you.
Barbara, I put that question to you.
BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes, about whether Gates will testify? You know, really interesting moment in the trial and there was sort of a sudden hush in the courtroom and then a sudden scurrying when a number of people ran out the back. In fact, Judge Ellis himself said that`s a surprise to me and apparently to about 25 other people in the courtroom who just ran out of here like rats fleeing a singing ship, presumably reporters who were going to report back this statement.
And if you think about it, it may very well be that they decide not to call Rick Gates. In my view, the case is coming in very well. They`ve gotten in lots of documents. You know, this is primarily a paper case which if you`re a prosecutor is a dream because paper doesn`t lie. Paper doesn`t forget. Paper doesn`t admit to biases and so, if you can probe your case with paper, you may not need a live witness who can go sideways in a lot of ways.
So, it sounds like they`re playing it by ear but may well end up not calling Rick Gates because they don`t need to and he presents them potential risks.
MELBER: A follow up to you on that. Good trial litigators have no ego. They have no attachment to anything that`s come before. They just want to make the case to win.
Is there something here going on where they have may have found that some of the undercutting by Manafort`s defense counsel was effective enough that they want to keep this option open?
MCQUADE: Yes, I think so. You know, they were noncommittal today and they don`t need to be. When you put a name on your list it, is who you may call. But you don`t have to call all of them.
And, you know, when you do call a witness, you`re required to turn over all of their prior statements on the subject matter and you`re required to turn over anything that could be used to attack their credibility like the plea deal, like anything bad that he has admitted to, any statements he`s made about the Russia matter.
So, it may be that prosecutors would rather hold that information close to the vest for now and save him as a witness in the Washington, D.C. trial that`s going to occur in September. They can get through this one on paper and save him, I think they`ll view that as a good thing. So, they can make that call next week when they see how the case has come in and decide whether they need to call him at all.
MELBER: Josh, walk us through a little more color from the reading rainbow segment we begun with, which is taking just a few quotes.
What did it feel like in the courtroom? Did you ever see eye rolling and how pivotal is this judge?
JOSH GERSTEIN, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: I think some of the eye rolling may have come during the jury selection process when we had very long sidebars. The judge does seem to really be riding the prosecution. Now, there wouldn`t be any reason for him to be riding the defense because the defense at the moment is just putting in a few cross- examination questions at the end of each witness called by the prosecution.
So, it`s really the prosecution`s ball on their side of the field at this point. And the judge is basically limiting the amount of evidence that I think the defense might view as prejudicial. As you mentioned, these issues of the photos or the photos of the ostrich jacket, photos of the home renovations that were very expensive, the photos of all the suits -- of all the other luxury goods that Manafort used money to buy -- money that the prosecution says came from his work in Ukraine.
But the judge is trying to keep this really to facts and figures, to the invoices, to the paper --
MELBER: Yes, let me draw you out on that. I mean, do you think this is fair? There`s sort of a view, the criticism of the Mueller team is that they`re trying to make Paul Manafort out like he`s Sean Diddy Combs and they had these fancy coats and they had these fancy brands and that legally, that`s not the problem. So, it`s kind of unfair and what they really have to problem is that there was tax evasion.
Do you think the judge is hitting that right and fairly?
GERSTEIN: I think he is, although he does bring it up an awful lot. I`d say roughly every hour or two, he makes a comment about Manafort is not on trial for being rich or for having a lavish lifestyle or extravagant tastes and the prosecutors will often agree with the judge but they insists that they need to show the value of these luxury goods and that Manafort was getting them to really convince jurors that Manafort`s tax returns could not possibly have covered the lifestyle that he was living, in addition to trying to prove his point of the very, very strange payment arrangements, nearly every vendor who came up said that they were paid by overseas wire transfers from shell companies whose names they had never heard of or only got from the Manafort.
And today, we also had a strange development of forged invoices. A couple of vendors saying that they were being shown invoices with their company`s name at the top of the letterhead but that they were not authentic. It appears somebody forged those as part of the process of getting these bills paid by these shell companies can overseas.
MELBER: Honestly, it sounds exhausting to be that shady all the time. But we don`t always relate to what defendants are accused of, innocent until proven guilty, of course.
Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and "Politico`s" Josh Gerstein, thank you both.
We have one more note as we`ve been talking all about this. Manafort has those expensive tastes and that includes -- we`re going to show you -- a $15,000 ostrich coat. Josh just mentioned it.
We want you to see it because you`re not a juror. So, you have every right to the information out there. Here is, we submit to you, the ostrich coat in question and we submit it to you without comment.
We`ll be right back.
MELBER: So check this out. The scene outside Republican Senator John Thune`s office today. This is the Dirksen Senate Office Building you`re looking at. And it was right ahead of the senator`s scheduled meeting with Trump`s new Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh.
Now, NBC counted about 200 demonstrators lining those halls. They stood mostly in silent protest, so there was some fist in the air and some noises they marched. Now, with the protest under way, Senator Thune`s meeting was moved, in fact, this happened the last minute. They brought him over to Mitch McConnell`s office suite over in the capitol. The public not permitted there, so protesters couldn`t get as close.
Now, when they got word the meeting was moved, the protesters marched on the Hart Office Building where Kavanaugh was scheduled to meet with Republican Senator John Boozman. And things got much louder there. Protesters singing songs, they were blocking the halls at one point, and some chanted, "oh, hell no, Kavanaugh".
Dozens of them were then arrested for that conduct. According to capitol police, 74 people arrested and charged. The counts around crowding or obstructing because you can`t interfere with the gathering places there.
Now, when disability rights activist Ady Barkan was wheeled into a police holding area, he was cheered by many fellow protesters.
The battle over this whole nomination is still, of course, in the early stages. Democratic senators mostly saying they will not meet with Kavanaugh. They want more facts from his time serving as Bush`s staff secretary in the White House.
Meanwhile, Republican Chuck Grassley who leads the judiciary committee says he has mot said when these confirmation hearings will actually start. But he does admit they are not likely until September which, of course is getting close to the midterms themselves. If today`s any indication what`s to come, it could be a lot more bumps on that road.
MELBER: It was big news when "The Washington Post" and "The Times" reported last summer that the middle of the 2016 campaign, the Trump Org was actively secretly trying to bid the Trump tower in Moscow. Now, as we know, candidate Trump was signing documents about that deal during the campaign at the very time he was publicly insisting he had no business deals with Russia.
This May, "BuzzFeed`s" Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold advanced the story with another scoop that the negotiations for Trump Tower Moscow were actually far more extensive and lasted longer than had been previously reported and the planning went into June of 2016, that`s after Trump became the nominee and that the negotiations conducted by, guess who, Michael Cohen, included plans for Trump to make a mid-campaign trip to Moscow, also known as a great idea.
Now, "The BuzzFeed" report includes another bombshell on the subject that relates to collusion. That even before Mueller was appointed special counsel, FBI agencies learned that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow and that some of those individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling. That would be like a big headline all on its own if we didn`t have so many other things happening.
Now, it`s just one exhibit in the collusion issues around Trump. Now, "BuzzFeed`s" Cormier and Leopold, this team is back with a new scoop and this one is about the accused spy Maria Butina currently in jail accused of acting as a Russian agent. Now, prosecutors accused Butina of waging a covert operation of influence targeting the NRA and other conservatives and they alleged that she was aided by these two individuals, U.S. persons one and two. The first one matches political operative Paul Erickson who also had a relationship with Butina. The second one has been ID`ed as George O`Neill Jr., he`s a Rockefeller heir, a conservative writer and he worked on the Pat Buchanan campaign in `92 with Erickson.
So, the details are piling up about Butina`s alleged influence campaign in the U.S. financed by a Russian billionaire with deep ties to the Russian presidential administration. And to use a word you can`t use in the Manafort trial, that oligarch had a son who worked as, guess who, a volunteer on Trump`s campaign. Now, sources are saying Butina first told the Senate about this funding source in her interview there.
Today, the Senate unanimously approved turning over that transcript, meaning what she told them and those details about the billionaire to prosecutors, as well Butina`s defense lawyer. Now, "BuzzFeed" reports federal investigators hot on the trail and they are reporting that the investigators are looking at $300,000 in these transactions by Butina and Erickson which includes $90,000 sent to or from a Russian bank.
The transactions were actually first flagged by anti-fraud investigations at Wells Fargo who in some cases found, quote, no an apparent economic business or lawful purpose to explain them. Those records also now handed over to the FBI.
Joining me now is one of those authors of those scoops, "BuzzFeed News" investigative reporter Anthony Cormier.
I guess I should start with wow.
ANTHONY CORMIER, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, BUZZFEED NEWS: Thanks.
MELBER: There`s a lot here.
CORMIER: A whole bunch going on.
MELBER: The $300,000, what does it mean?
CORMIER: Essentially that the -- we know now that this massive sort of counterintelligence investigation is doing what all investigators do, they`re following the money. They want to know who was supporting Ms. Butina in the U.S. and what she was doing with the funds while she was here and whether or not anyone else was involved with this sort of what they are alleging is a sort of grand conspiracy to influence political figures in the U.S. on Russia`s behalf.
MELBER: Right. So, when you say anyone else involved, it`s oh, are she and Torshin who`s linked to Putin some sort of tiny lone would he have sleeper cell or are there other dogs on this Russian dog sledding team?
CORMIER: Both Russian and American I think.
CORMIER: Our sources are telling us that they want to know to whom Torshin was funneling money, whether those are Russian individuals and whether Torshin via Butina was sending money to anyone in the U.S. That`s not been proven. We don`t have -- we didn`t report it yet. We can say that`s what the FBI is sniffing around at.
MELBER: You`re familiar with the term what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. What happens online has not stayed online in this case. The midterm campaign hacking we`re hearing about involves offline events, the digital operations that Mueller charged involve a lot of offline problems.
How much of this looks to you like bigger offline physical activity inside the United States and how does Mueller view that even if this predates his mandate.
CORMIER: I won`t speak for Mr. Mueller because people who do often look foolish. But I will say that our sources in the FBI tell us that that money has to go somewhere, right? These are -- this is cash. It moves. They want to know where it went. It`s going to be difficult, right, when you deposit cash on the front end, it`s hard to know where it came from, when you pull it out. On the back end, it`s really difficult to know where it went.
But they`re the FBI, this is a massive sweeping counterintelligence investigation. And our sources are telling us they are firmly going to get to the bottom of it.
MELBER: And Torshin being so hands on as a Putin billionaire means what?
CORMIER: It means that you can make sort of a bee line right to the Kremlin if this all stands up, right, if the Butina charges stick. If they find out where the money came from and where it went, it`s going to be very difficult for Kremlin to say we had no idea.
MELBER: Final question. There`s a lot of the discussion about regulating finance and banks in America. Is this story which you report begins with bank regulations and laws forcing oversight a sign that that`s an important part of overseeing banks?
CORMIER: Absolutely. We -- Jason, my partner, and I have been reporting on this sort of money and we`ve seen again and again, whether it`s Citi in the past, now Wells Fargo. They are critical vectors, points where FBI is able to go and pull records. As we saw earlier in the show today, paper doesn`t lie. The FBI is using paper to sort of make these cases.
MELBER: It`s fascinating and as we`ve shown in our introduction, you`ve been doing a lot of reporting.
MELBER: Thank you so much, Anthony Cormier from "BuzzFeed".
Now, Democrats say they got good news 97 days out of the midterms. That`s next.
MELBER: So, the pivotal political state of Ohio has a 12th district right here smack in the middle of that state and it`s been reliably red. In fact, the 12th hasn`t gone to a Democrat for Congress since Run DMC was the top of the charts in the `80s.
Now, right now, this district doesn`t have a member of Congress representing them because, well, you have a big Ohio 12-shaped hole in the U.S. House and that`s why we have a special election to fill that seat this coming Tuesday. You could say the midterms have already starred although it`s a special election.
Now that has gone up like a flare for Democrats trying to win back the House, and take a look at the latest poll out of that district, the Democrat in the race trailing the opponent by just one point, well within striking distance which we`ve just shown you would be a huge shift blue in the state.
And Democrats say this is not the only good piece of data they`re getting right now today. Over in Texas, which, of course, is reliably red, the idea of an incumbent Republican Senator like Ted Cruz losing to a progressive upstart Democrat would seem like a total fantasy but there is this poll out of Texas, the Democrat running against Ted Cruz, Beto O`Rourke trailing now by six points. That is tight for Texas.
Now, Larry Sabato the said the race has an upset potential.
The flip side is, of course, if you follow the news or live in Texas, you know everyone loves Ted Cruz. He is super popular and well-liked. That`s just an issue anytime you run against him.
Now, having said that, there is a bat signal thing going on for at least the Democratic Party`s biggest cheerleader, former President Barack Obama using today as this other good data is coming in to release his list of endorsements for these midterms and trying to push some over the finish line and chipping away at the Republican majority in Congress.
It is now 97 days from the midterms and this former president is choosing this as his moment to get back in the spotlight saying he`s eager to get back into politics. So, we`re about to enter the sprint to November. Make sure to stretch.
MELBER: That does it for us.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Good evening, my friend Lawrence. And I`m sorry I`m late. I`m still getting the hang of this.
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