As an example of the type of conservative commentary I'm referring to, Paul Mirengoff at Powerline Blog published two blogs, one last night and one this morning, regarding the Mueller "probe": Report: Mueller Pressing Hard on Trump Tower Meeting and Mueller’s theory: Trump defrauded voters. In fact, Mirengoff touches on some central issues that deserve more attention and which, when properly understood, reveal the scope and aim of the highly secretive Mueller operation.
A lot of clarity can be gained by looking at the whole Mueller operation in light of the Steele Dossier. The central allegation of the Dossier boils down, quite explicitly, to the simple proposition: Trump entered into a corrupt quid pro quo arrangement with "Russians": a bribery scheme. This is the aspect of the Mueller case theory I examined in the blog that's linked above, the bribery statute: 18 US Code 201(b)(2). The Dossier's version of this general proposition is that, in exchange for the release of DNC emails by the Russians through Wikileaks--"a thing of value," in that the release of emails could lead to Trump's election--Trump agreed to grant sanctions relief to Russia.
But "dirt on Hillary" works just as well as "a thing of value" to be exchanged for sanctions relief, for purposes of the bribery statute.
Thus, the Trump Tower meeting comes across as a straightforward attempt to involve the Trump campaign in a corrupt quid pro quo arrangement: bribery. The Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, promises "dirt," then shows up talking about the Magnitsky Act (i.e., sanctions). She clearly seems to be dangling her half of the quid pro quo, sanctions relief, in the apparent hope that the Trump team will enter into the "spirit of the deal." Notably, this Trump Tower attempt at eliciting an offer of a quid (sanctions relief) for the Hillary dirt quo came before the first Dossier reports. The fact that receiving such information from Russians is not unlawful (Mirengoff quotes conservative stalwarts John Yoo and David Marston to this effect) is, of course, beside the point of what I assume is Mueller's theory: if the receipt of the information is simply one half of the corrupt quid pro quo then the presence of a second half, sanctions relief, does make this arrangement a crime.
Of course, nothing so far proves that Trump or anyone acting on his behalf entered into any such agreement or even considered it, but in politics appearances--the narrative--can be all in all. If Mueller can, shall we say, induce someone to assert that they believe or have reason to believe that Trump knew of the meeting and the discussions, then Trump's later denial of such knowledge begins to look--to the suspicious mind--like the concealment of guilty knowledge. It suggests that he may have known what the Russians wanted and that he at least considered it.
That conspiratorial effect is heightened by the Dossier's initial reports, which make two key assertions. First, that the quid pro quo outlined above had actually been entered into. Second, that Paul Manafort (present at the Trump Tower meeting) was the point man for the Trump Campaign's Russian "outreach," and that Carter Page was acting as Manafort's "intermediary" to important figures in Russia who could make a deal of that sort happen. That's all in the Dossier.
These assertions become, at least circumstantially, directly relevant to the Trump Tower meeting when we read in Dossier reports (written after the Trump Tower meeting and describing events that occurred after that meeting) that Carter Page took his ill fated trip to Moscow (a readily verifiable fact, for a change), ostensibly to deliver a commencement address at a Russian institute. In fact--the Dossier informs us--while in Moscow Page conducted "secret" meetings with the likes of Igor Sechin--a close ally and "de facto deputy" of Vladimir Putin. So, with this added to the background, if someone can be found to say that Trump had knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting it becomes possible to frame a narrative that runs roughly like this.
The Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, by claiming to be able to provide "dirt on Hillary," finagled a meeting at Trump Tower with top officials in the Trump campaign: Paul Manafort, Don Trump, Jr., and Jared Kushner. At the meeting, Veselnitskaya raised the subject of sanctions, hoping to elicit an openness to doing some sort of deal in exchange for the "dirt," i.e., entering into a corrupt quid pro quo relationship. But, the trio of Trump officials were too wary to discuss such a deal in a New York City skyscraper--probably the easiest target in the world for electronic surveillance. Instead, they briefed the Boss, waited a discreet amount of time, and then sent a trusted emissary who was familiar with the lay of the land in Moscow and had a semi-plausible pretext--Carter Page--to get the ball rolling.
Of course virtually none of this is remotely verifiable; no crime can be proven. But, then, verifiability isn't really the point. The point is to have a narrative that, in the absence of actual factual evidence, at least hangs together. Gives the impression of smoke and, therefore, of a fire somewhere. So, when we hear that "Mueller is pressing hard on the Trump Tower meeting," it's easy to see why that should be so. A breakthrough on that front is probably the one thing that could have the most positive effect on Mueller's pursuit of the Trumpian white whale. That's obvious enough from the fact that virtually every witness who has even the remotest connection to Trump Tower has been grilled on this subject by Mueller with one object in view--to somehow connect Trump personally to the larger narrative. It's not really about a crime, though. It's about a narrative that will play out politically.
The Jerome Corsi case is, if anything, even more closely connected to this narrative. After all, with Corsi the connection to Wikileaks is explicit, and thus plays into the Dossier's narrative of the corrupt quid pro quo. If Corsi can be pressured to admit to advance knowledge of supposed Russian release of hacked emails to Wikileaks, then his communications with Roger Stone take on a new significance--given Stone's close relationship with Trump. Again, absent startling new facts, little to nothing can be proven. The DNC server was never examined by the FBI--part of a disturbing pattern of non-investigation by that agency--and respected experts dispute even the possibility of a Russian hack having occurred. Yet, there is the support provided by the CIA and FBI claims that it was a Russian operation, a widely accepted narrative in officialdom--few elected officials, if any, dare dispute it.
Now lets turn to the second theory, one which Team Mueller has actually used repeatedly: the claim of fraud against the United States. Just to be clear about what we're looking at, 18 U.S.C. § 371 makes it a crime for
two or more persons [to] conspire ... to defraud the United States, ... in any manner or for any purpose ...According to the theory that Team Mueller has employed, apparently non-criminal acts--money raising scams of Russian bots on the internet, for example--can suddenly become fraud against the United States if they are performed by agents of a foreign power who have not registered as such with the DoJ. There's more to it, but that'll suffice for our purposes. This time, let's work this topic in reverse, so to speak.
In what possible way could Trump have committed fraud against the United States? By the very fact of allowing himself to be inaugurated as President of the United States.
How, you ask, could that possibly be construed as a fraud--surely there could be no more honorable and innocent act? Because in doing so Trump deprived the United States of its expectation of the honest services of a President who would uphold the duties of the office.
That's right. Because when Trump was inaugurated he failed to disclose that he's a puppet of Putin. An agent of a foreign power, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Puppet of Putin, agent of a foreign power--when did that occur? It occurred when Trump entered into that corrupt quid quo pro to exchange sanctions relief for "dirt on Hillary," or the release of DNC emails, or some other thing of value to his presidential quest. That opened Trump up to blackmail or, more politely, it opened him up to pressure to act in the interests of Russia rather than the interests of the United States. In other words, as an agent. Of a foreign power, and a uniquely evil foreign power at that. And I hope that reminds you of the absurd claims that General Flynn was blackmailable, too. Because if that, in the theory that Sally Yates advanced, made Flynn unemployable by the White House, what would it say about Trump as president? How "extremely careless" of Trump to place himself in such a position. Or was that "grossly negligent"--a term that seems to be reserved for Republicans?
So, voila, there you have it: Inauguration as President of the United States becomes ... fraud against the United States!
But didn't we already agree that none of that has been proven, and probably isn't provable at all? Even James Comey admitted, once again this week, that the Dossier wasn't verified before the Page FISA and it wasn't verified afterwards. Isn't it all just narrative--even worse, opposition research paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign? Well, yes, but ...
Suppose we can find someone, pressure someone, who will say that Trump knew about that Trump Tower meeting? It may not be provable, not even chargeable, but it goes a long way toward forming a narrative with a veneer of plausibility. It's definitely smoke, given Trump's denials. And it would definitely be politically damaging: Trump, Putin's poodle; the GOP, the party of Russia.
To anyone who says, No, Jerrold Nadler would be ashamed to embody such a tissue thin narrative in articles of impeachment, I say: You haven't listened to what he--and many other Democrats--have been saying since the Midterm elections. And to anyone who says, No, the Senate Democrats would never push such an absurd concatenation of narrative, non-facts, unverified and unverifiable allegations, and sheer malice in an impeachment trial, I say: You weren't paying attention during the Kavanaugh nomination hearings.
UPDATE: As if on cue, Jerrold Nadler is talking about Trump "fraudulently obtaining the office [of President]." True, he's talking about making perfectly legal hush money payments to women, not failure to disclose that one is a poodle of Putin, but the idea of impeaching a President for "fraud against the United States" by becoming President is there. Clearly he's been studying Mueller's tactics closely. Unfulfilled campaign rhetoric? It'll all be fair game for the "fraud against the United States ploy."