The pee tape

Someday, we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.

But Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, thinks that day will never come. And he’s in a good position to know one way or another.

The public first learned of the possible existence of what came to be known as the pee tape from the Steele dossier. Former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele reported that prostitutes had performed a “golden shower” urination show for Trump in the Moscow Ritz where he was staying during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. This had been recorded by Russian intelligence for purposes of blackmailing Trump.

But this claim about a pee tape wasn’t news to Cohen. Thanks to a newly released transcript from the House intelligence committee, we now know that Cohen first heard about the pee tape shortly after Trump returned from Russia.

Trump denied it, but he asked Cohen to find out where the rumors were coming from.

Testifying under oath, Cohen says he spoke to many people about the tape, including one unnamed man caller who demanded $20 million.

Another person who called Cohen about the tape was Harvey Levin of the gossip site TMZ, who also had heard about the existence of the tape. (TMZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In the end, Cohen concluded that the pee tape didn’t exist for a very practical reason. If prostitutes had urinated on the bed in the Moscow Ritz, where did Trump sleep that night?

The tape had acquired a life of its own, Cohen said, much like the claim that he had attended secret meetings with Russians in Prague, which also appeared in the dossier. Cohen said under oath that all the allegations concerning him in the dossier are false.

But, Cohen also relates an interesting anecdote about the dossier. After it was published January 10, 2017 by Buzzfeed, Trump called Cohen at home.

In other words, Trump seemed very concerned. He appeared unsure whether the allegations in the dossier regarding Cohen were true or not.

So let me make sure I got this right. This is the same dossier with the golden showers allegations that Trump scoffs at. If those claims, which appear in the very front of the dossier, were false, would he really need to see Cohen’s passport in the middle of the night?

In other words, if there’s a huge lie on page one of the dossier, you don’t need to scrutinize pages two, three, four, and five, especially not in the middle of the night. It can wait until morning.

It seems quite possible that something in the dossier hit the mark to cause such panic for Cohen to go rushing back to Trump Tower waving his passport.

Whether that’s the pee tape or not, we don’t know. Unlike Cohen and Levin, Steele, however, had not just picked up a rumor. He claimed to have confirmed the incident with three separate sources:

  • “Source D,” described as having “been present.”
  • “Source E,” a “senior/western member of the staff at the hotel,” who was aware of the golden showers incident at the time it occurred in 2013.
  • “Source F,” a female staffer at the hotel who confirmed the story.

I remain unconvinced. It could be Steele was the victim of a Russian disinformation effort. As I wrote in Trump/Russia, seeing this kind of tawdry material in reports compiled by former spooks was not out of the ordinary:

What people failed to realize was that sordid allegations like the one in Steele’s report were a dirty secret of the world of private investigations. Several people familiar with this world told me that reports by companies like Kroll, K2, Mintz Group, IGI, and others were often littered with tawdry allegations. “Yes, sex stuff comes up a lot and it’s often nonsense,” a DC attorney who often hires private investigators told me. One veteran opposition researcher told me he has seen the same thing so often that he has detected a pattern: when the subject of the investigation was connected to Latin America, drugs were involved; when the connection was Russia or Eastern Europe, then it was usually sex. “Every single one of their reports has something like that,” the opposition researcher said. “That’s what they pitch the client to keep them on the hook. They then spend months trying to confirm it.”

Then again, maybe Steele got it right and one day we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.

The definition that’s letting Trump off the hook

The new round of reporting with insight from members of Robert Mueller’s notoriously tightlipped team offers very strong support to the view that the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was more damaging to President Trump — perhaps far more damaging — than the initial impression shaped by Attorney General William Barr.

Mueller may have made the mistake of assuming good faith on the part of an administration where that’s in extremely short supply. Barr’s letter purportedly laying out the special counsel’s principal conclusions now risks looking more like a political whitewash than a genuine effort to inform the people charged with protecting our country and the American people.

It’s been three weeks since Mueller submitted his final report, and all we have seen of it are the roughly 100 words t quoted in Barr’s letter, the most important are actually in a footnote, which defines the terms of Mueller’s criminal “coordination” inquiry. He defined that term as an “agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

A definition like that has extraordinary power. It draws a bright line between an abuse of power in pursuit of higher office that would almost certainly set the stage for impeachment and what the president has called a “complete and total exoneration.” Furthermore, in Barr’s legal view, if there was no underlying criminal act, then there can be no obstruction of justice, no matter how damning the evidence may be.

But legal conclusions aren’t the only issue at stake — they might not even be the most important. What we may learn is that even if the Trump campaign didn’t meet a strict, legal definition of coordination, it still presented a national security threat. What’s more, it still might be doing so.

The “coordination” part of Mueller’s investigation assessed evidence through a most narrow frame. The shortcoming with this approach is that the interference effort in the 2016 campaign was deliberately designed to hide the Russian government’s role in the affair. If the line Mueller drew was an agreement of some kind with the “Russian government,” then the chance that anyone connected with the Trump campaign would face criminal conspiracy charges over election interference was exceedingly low. Looking for the Russian government’s unseen hand in the murky contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia is bit a like chasing smoke.

Russia’s vaunted intelligence directorate was never going to send its spies to meet Trump campaign officials on a foggy bridge in Berlin. Russia did, however, send use all manner of cutouts and access agents to deliver messages to the Trump campaign to ensure maximum ambiguity and plausible deniability.

One example is the case of Roger Stone. Even if, say, Stone did coordinate the release of Democratic Party emails with Wikileaks, as he proudly hinted during the campaign, that would still fall outside the narrow scope of Mueller’s definition. Wikileaks wasn’t part of the Russian government, although Russia used it, unwittingly or not, as a cutout to publish Democratic Party emails. And Stone wasn’t officially a member of the Trump campaign.

In their prepared statements to Congress, both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner issued nearly identical, carefully worded denials that they “did not collude with any foreign government” and know of no one who did. But that doesn’t cover the June 2016 meeting both men attended in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who wasn’t part of the Russian government although an email to the president’s son telling him she was bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help his father.

Did Paul Manafort know that the man who ran his Ukraine office, Konstantin Klimnik, had ties to Russian intelligence, as the F.B.I. suspsects? “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort once said.

And what about the Trump Tower Moscow deal about which Michael Cohen admitted he lied to Congress? That wasn’t related to election interference. Neither were Kushner’s discussions with Russian officials during the campaign about forming a secret back channel. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about discussing sanctions, not election interference, with the Russian ambassador.

It’s hard enough to figure out what’s really going on in this through-the-looking-glass world famously likened to a “wilderness of mirrors.” The recently released transcript of George Papadopoulos, the young Trump campaign foreign policy aide convicted of lying to the F.B.I., reveals that he was still confused by Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who told him in April 2016 that he had returned from Moscow and that the Russians had thousands of Clinton’s emails.  “Why was he lying, or why would he be masquerading as something he’s not?” Papadopoulos asked during his House testimony.

It was Papadopoulos’s conversation with an Australian diplomat that in July 2016 set in motion the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference. The job of FBI counterintelligence officials is primarily to neutralize a threat to national security, which may or not end up in criminal court. Mueller inherited the much-maligned investigation into whether the Trump campaign was a threat to national security. It will likely form part of his nearly 400-page report, along with an explanation of why such a tradition-bound prosecutor decided not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment about whether President Trump obstructed justice.

We do know that the Trump campaign not only didn’t say a word about that interference to any American charged with protecting our democracy but actually ennabled it — albeit without making a tacit, express agreement — and subsequently lied about it. That may not be criminal, but it is not exculpatory.

Alarming conduct continues: The blooming congressional investigation into White House security clearances revealed that such threats to national security are routinely disregarded by the Trump White House. More than two dozen individuals were granted access to the nation’s deepest secrets over the objections of security professionals for reasons that include foreign influence. Kushner was granted a security clearance reportedly on the personal order of the president.

All we know, based on the definition quoted in the attorney general’s letter, is that Mueller looked at certain events of the 2016 election through a very narrow lens — surely more narrow than the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and “individuals associated with campaign of President Donald Trump” he was charged with investigating. 

We still have a lot to learn from the report about what happened to the “links” Mueller was charged with investigating, but there’s little doubt there were plenty of them.

This isn’t the first time a definition has determined the fate of a presidency. The definition of “sexual relations” was critical to whether President Clinton could be accused of perjury and impeached by the House. No one accepted Clinton’s definition of sexual relations, which didn’t apply to his actions with Monica Lewinsky.  We shouldn’t be so quick to accept a hastily-written letter that may be using a narrow definition to provide political cover and exonerate the president.

Who is Fima Shusterman?

“Due to ongoing threats against his family,” Michael Cohen announced yesterday that he was postponing his highly-anticipated congressional testimony.

The threats are coming from the White House where President Trump won’t stop talking about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, a guy by the name of Fima Shusterman.

On a phone call January 12th with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, the president of the United States launched into an extraordinary attack on Cohen’s father-in-law, a private citizen:

TRUMP: He should give information maybe on his father-in-law. Because that’s the one that people want to look. Because where does that money? That’s the money in the family. And I guess he didn’t want to talk about his father-in-law. Trying to get his sentence reduced. So it’s pretty sad. He is weak. And is very sad to watch a thing like that. I couldn’t care less.

PIRRO: What is his father-in-law’s name? 

TRUMP: I don’t know but you’ll find out and you’ll look into it. Because nobody knows what’s going on other there. 

The implication here is that Shusterman, a Ukrainian emigre, is some sort of Russian organized crime figure, although in typical Trump fashion he provides no evidence.

As readers of my book know, Trump knows that Shusterman is “the money” in the Cohen family because his business benefited from it.

Even with the spotlight the president has put on him, we still know very little about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman. The only bit of insight comes from his 1993 testimony in federal court. So here goes.

Shusterman had pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. In exchange for leniency, he agreed to testify at the trial of Harold Wapnick, his accountant. Shusterman was sentenced to probation and fined $5,000.

On May 13, 1993, Shusterman took the witness stand in the court of Judge Carol Amon. Although he spoke some English, he had a translator present at his own request “because I do not understand English 100 percent.”

Q. Good morning, Mr. Shusterman.
A. Good morning.
Q. How old are you, sir?
A. 48.
Q. Are you married, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. And do you have any children, sir?
A. Yes, I have a daughter.
Q. Where were you born, Mr. Shusterman?
A. In the Soviet Union.
Q. When did you come to the United States, sir?
A. In May '75.
Q. And are you a citizen, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. Are you employed?
A. Yes.
Q. Where are you employed?
A. I'm employed as a manager with Future Knits.
Q. And are you a co-owner of of Future Knits, sir?
A. Yes, I am. 
Q. Who are your partners?
A. My partners are Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok.
Q. What business is Future Knits in?
A. This is a knitting factory.
Q. When was Future Knits established, sir?
A. I'm not sure. I think it was established in '81.
Q. Future Knits, sir, when was Future Knits established?
A. In 1988.
Q. And prior to Future Knits, sir, how were you employed?
A. I was employed with S&Z Fashions and LVA Corp.
Q. Were you a co-owner of those corporations?
A. Yes, I was. 
Q. And were your partners the same individuals as your partners
in Future Knits?
A. Yes, correct. 
Q. Were S&Z Fashions and LVA also in the knitting business?
A. Yes. 
Q. When did you join S&Z Fashions and LVA?
A. In July of '84. 
Q. Between years 1985 to 1988, were you involved with any other corporations
other than S&Z and LVA and Future Knits?
A. No. 
Q. Did you have an ownership or office position with any other corporation, sir?
A. Yes. I was secretary with Martha Cab Corporation, and Bar Trans Corporation.
Q. And, sir, is Barn Transportation with an "N" end, B-A-R-N?
A. Barn, B-A-R-N.
Q. Who is shareholder of Martha and Barn, sir?
A. My wife was.
Q. Are you an officer of those corporations?
A. Yes, I am.

Shusterman was also secretary of N.Y. Funky Taxi Corp. and New York Fulton Taxi Corp.

Today, the chief executive of N.Y. Funky Taxi, Martha Cab and Barn Trans is Michael Cohen, who married Mr. Shusterman’s daughter, Laura, a year following her father’s guilty plea and court appearance. Cohen owns and operates a fleet of cabs in New York and Chicago.

Note to my readers: This work costs me both time and money (in the case of this transcript quite a bit of money). I do this work for free in the hope that people will find it valuable. If you agree, the best way you can support this work is by purchasing my book, Trump/Russia, which has much more information on the president’s decades-long connection to Russian criminal money.

Click here to purchase Trump/Russia.

Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been convicted of a crime?
A. Yes. 
Q. What crime were you convicted of, sir?
A. Conspiracy. 
Q. When were you convicted?
A. In March of this year, '93.
Q. How were you convicted, sir?
A. I pleaded guilty. 
Q. And, Mr. Shusterman, in connection with your guilty plea,
did you enter into an agreement with the government?
A. Yes.
Q. Would you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Mr. Shusterman,
what your understanding is of that agreement?
A. My understanding is that I obligated myself to fully, 100 percent, 
cooperate with the government. 
Q. And did the government agree to do anything in return, sir?
A. Yes, they did. 
Q. What did they agree to do, sir?
A. They would advise the judge about my full cooperation and 
about my help rendered in their investigations. 
Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been sentenced yet?
A. No, not yet.
Q. Do you know what sentence you are facing, sir?
A. Yes.
Q. What is that, sir?
A. Five years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines. 
Q. Sir, have any promises been made to you regarding your sentence?
A. No. 
Q. Do you know who will be sentencing you, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I do. 
Q. And who is that, sir?
A. Judge Amon. 
Q. Mr. Shusterman, you've testified that you pled guilty to 
the crime of conspiracy. Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen 
of the jury what is it that you did?
A. I concealed income from the state, and I cashed checks in the amounts 
that exceeded $10,000.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, what did you need this cash for, sir?
A. To operate our business. 

Shusterman goes on to say that from 1984 to 1988 he would regularly bring checks from his customers made out to S&Z Fashions, LVA, and Future Knits and leave them in Wapnick’s office.

A few days later, Shusterman would return and collect cash, always in amounts more than $10,000, in a paper bag or envelope. Wapnick would keep 3 percent for his services.

The total amount cashed with the Wapnicks was “somewhere between five and five and a half million dollars,” Shusterman testified.

Shusterman is then cross-examined by Harold Wapnick, who does a terrible job of representing himself with convoluted lines of questions.

However, he does stumble into a couple of things that are interesting in light of Trump’s claims that Shusterman is “the money in the family.”

Wapnick: Sir, you own a -- you own 40 percent of a 
40-machine factory, sir?
A. No. 
Q. What percentage do you own of a 40-machine factory, sir?
A. 15 percent as of today. 
Q. 15 percent. Would you say that the 15 percent value is in excess 
of a million dollars, sir?
A. If you pay me half a million I'll sell it to you gladly.
Q. Thank you. How about the -- do you own five -- 9 taxicab medallions? 
And are they worth about two million dollars?
The Court: Wait a minute. I don't think he gave an answer. 
Q. Are they worth about two million dollars, sir?
A. Did you say two million?
Q. Let's say $170,000 apiece, and we multiply it by nine, so, okay -- 
what's a half a million dollars among friends. Is it worth ---
The court: I take it you're withdrawing your last question. 
Wapnick: No I'm asking him is it worth a million and a half dollars, sir. 
Shusterman: Only on paper. 

A decade later, beginning in 2003, Shusterman made the first of three apartment purchases at Trump World Tower across from the United Nations building in Manhattan. By 2005, Shusterman had spent $7.6 million on Trump’s properties.

So where did this money come from and what did Trump know about it?

Benchslapped: The Eric Dubelier File

Eric A. Dubelier

You might not realize it but a Russian company accused of financing an attack on American democracy is trying to use the U.S. court system to make a mockery of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The company is Concord Management and Consulting LLC. The Russian company, owned by one of Putin’s cronies, stands accused of bankrolling the operations of the St. Petersburg-based Internet troll farm that bombarded Americans with divisive content on social media during the 2016 election.

Not only has Concord Management pleaded not guilty to what it calls “a make-believe crime” — conspiracy to defraud the United States — it has battled to gain access to Mueller’s sensitive investigative files.

No doubt it would be interesting to Concord and its Russian masters how Mueller was able to obtain such detailed and devastating information.

I was wondering what sort of attorney would represent a company like Concord Management.

The answer, it turns out, is a bad one.

His name is Eric A. Dubelier and he has somehow managed to reach the rank of partner at the firm Reed Smith LLP despite repeatedly embarrassing himself and his firm in court.

Flounder

His legal filings in the case quoted Flounder (!) from the film Animal House. In open court, he pointed his finger at Jeannie Rhee, one of Mueller’s prosecutors, and said her claim that he had hung up on her in a phone call was “bullshit.”

Judge Dabney Friedrich called Dubelier’s actions “unprofessional, inappropriate, and ineffective.”

This is what is known in the legal profession as a “benchslap.”

Sure, it stings. Most attorneys just take it.

Not Dubelier. His response was a legal filing one observer described as “breathtakingly petulant:”

Perhaps more importantly however, the Court did not consider the fact that while the mainstream media has largely ignored Defendant’s pending motions, when the word “Judge” appears before a person’s name, this political adornment suggests to the public that there now is some higher level of wisdom than among the mere mortal lawyers in the case, and as such, every single mainstream media organization repeated the Court’s words as gospel.

How dare the media quote the judge!

But there’s more.

The direct consequence was swift and clear; that is, undersigned counsel have received overnight and continuing today a flow of hatred in the form of voicemail and electronic mail from self-proclaimed patriots containing threats, intimidation, and the desire that both undersigned counsel promptly die. One communication specified that the cause of death for [co-counsel Katherine] Seikaly should be by fire. Apparently some of these brave self-proclaimed patriots were whipped into their frenzy by a cable television entertainer unknown to undersigned counsel named Rachel Maddow who devoted a significant portion of her variety program to the words spoken by the Court yesterday. So while counsel’s words used in advocacy can hurt, the words of a Judge can have devastating consequences.

Dubelier’s humiliation is palpable. Which is surprising. It’s not the first time he’s been benchslapped.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also benchslapped Dubelier in her 2011 dissent in the case of Connick v. Thompson.

This case involved an infamous episode of prosecutorial misconduct in the death penalty case of John Thompson. (Thompson spent 14 years on Louisiana Death Row until an investigation found blood evidence that would have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. Dubelier was the special prosecutor on the case.)

Here’s RBG’s benchslap of Dubelier:

On what basis can one be confident that law schools acquaint students with prosecutors’ unique obligation under Brady? Whittaker told the jury he did not recall covering Brady in his criminal procedure class in law school. Dubelier’s alma mater, like most other law faculties, does not make criminal procedure a required course.

Translation: Just because Eric Dubelier has a law degree doesn’t mean he knows the law.

The Brady rule RBG is talking about is the 1963 Supreme Court case of Brady v Maryland. Ever since that ruling, prosecutors have had to share with defense attorneys any evidence that might help exonerate a defendant.

Dubelier, questioned under oath, could not articulate the Brady rule, according to a Slate article on the Thompson case.

Dubelier’s alma mater, Tulane University, bears some of the blame here. Dubelier spent the better part of a decade at Tulane, leaving a bachelor’s degree (with honors), an MBA, and finally, in 1984, a law degree.

A year out of law school, Dubelier, working for the New Orleans district attorney’s office, embarrassed himself before Judge Oser in a high-profile point-shaving case against a former Tulane basketball star, John “Hot Rod” Williams.

That’s another violation of the same Brady obligations Justice RBG referenced earlier.

Judge Oser reversed himself and, later, dismissed the case again saying Dubelier had deliberately concealed Brady material from the defense. Williams was acquitted in a retrial.

Despite his disastrous performance in the Hot Rod Williams case, Dubelier remained a close assistant to New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. (the father of singer Harry Connick Jr.). It didn’t hurt that Dubelier was briefly married to Connick’s niece.

After New Orleans, Dubelier spent more than a decade as a prosecutor the U.S. Attorney’s office, first in Miami and later in Washington, D.C. In his defense, he seems to have performed his duties without any more national embarrassments. One of the individuals he prosecuted was Francisco Martin Duran on charges of trying to assassinate President Clinton.

He left what now refers to as “the real Justice Department” in 1998 to join Reed Smith. One of his clients at Reed Smith was the widow of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, which is interesting given his current representation of the (alleged) financier of the Russian troll farm.

As for the Concord case, the troll farm lawyer got his revenge on the press when he trolled reporters with another filing that made a cryptic reference to a nude selfie in Mueller’s possession.

Some Useful Trump/Russia Definitions

The Trump/Russia scandal has filled our heads with a lot of intelligence jargon. Unwitting asset. Agent. Active measures. But what do these words actually mean?

Someone pointed me to the CIA’s own Glossary of Intelligence Terms, created in 1989. Granted it’s a bit outdated, but it’s also quite helpful. (I am indebted to The Black Vault, an online repository of declassified documents for the glossary.)

Here’s how the CIA defines active measures:

Active measures: A literal translation of a Russian phrase that is used to describe overt and covert techniques and intelligence operations designed to advance Soviet foreign policy objectives and to influence events in foreign countries by altering people’s perceptions. Active measures should not be confused with legitimate diplomatic activities.

We often hear Trump described as a possible asset, unwitting or otherwise, of Russia. But according to the CIA’s glossary this isn’t the right use of the word.

Agent (1) A person who engages in clandestine intelligence activity under the direction of an intelligence organization but who is not an officer, employee, or co-opted worker of that organization. (2) An individual who acts under the direction of an intelligence agency or security service to obtain, or assist in obtaining, information for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes. (3) One who is authorized or instructed to obtain or to assist in obtaining information for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes.

A better word is asset.

Asset: (1) Any resource — a person, group, relationship, instrument installation, supply — at the disposition of an intelligence agency for use in an operational or support role. (2) A person who contributes to a clandestine mission but is not a fully controlled agent. (Also see intelligence asset, national intelligence asset, and tactical intelligence asset.)

We recently learned that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump after his firing of James Comey. Here’s how the CIA defines it.

Counterintelligence: Information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations, persons, or terrorist activities, but not including personnel, physical, document, or communications security programs. (Also see foreign counterintelligence, security countermeasures, and technical surveillance countermeasures.)

It’s interesting to view propaganda from an intelligence perspective.

Propaganda: Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.

The dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele is often described as raw intelligence.

Raw intelligence: A colloquial term meaning collected intelligence information that has not yet been converted into finished intelligence. (Also see intelligence information.)

That takes us to another definition.

Finished intelligence: (1) The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas. (2) The final result of the production step of the intelligence cycle; the intelligence product. (Also see intelligence cycle and end product.)

Let me know if this is helpful or there are any other terms you’d like to see explained.