Last May, when Texas Democrat Al Green called for Donald Trump's impeachment in the House of Representatives, some of my Facebook friends recoiled in horror at the idea of Vice President Mike Pence succeeding Trump as president.
"President Mike Pence? Dems should be 'careful what they wish for,' experts say," warned The Guardian's Washington Bureau Chief last May. Despite his low public profile, Pence's extreme conservatism carries huge potential to set the U.S. back a century.
"Pence has the political experience, the connections, the discipline, and the ideological mooring that Trump lacks," reports Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, in the New Yorker. "He also has a close relationship with the conservative billionaire donors who have captured the Republican Party's agenda in recent years."
Pence's New York election night party included several billionaires, including David Koch, "the richest resident of New York." Libertarians David and his brother Charles Koch, worth an estimated $91 billion together, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into pushing American politics as far right as they could -- to the Tea Party and beyond.
(In Canada, former Fraser Institute executive director Michael Walker recently confirmed that the Koch brothers funded their "international" research, and have funded the Institute for years and years.)
"If Pence were to become President for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers -- period. He's been their tool for years," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Jane Mayer. She continued: '[Steve] Bannon is equally alarmed at the prospect of a Pence Presidency. He told me, 'I'm concerned he'd be a President that the Kochs would own.'"
Other Republicans in the line of succession seem similarly repugnant. The top four in line, after Vice President Mike Pence, are Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Most of these ultra rich Republicans hew to ultra conservative beliefs and political priorities. If the political or criminal process does manage to remove Donald Trump, a government led by Pence or another Republican might regain some stability but, with full trilateral control (Executive, House and Senate), the party would steer the United States hard to the right -- perhaps the "alt-right."
On the other hand, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has cast a wide net with his investigation into Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. election. Last week, he unsealed indictments against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and his associate, Rick Gates. They face charges including conspiracy, and money laundering at least $13 million in rubles.
Two hours after unsealing these indictments, Mueller announced where he had obtained the evidence against these two: another Trump associate had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and has been co-operating with investigators since July.
In a classic case of flipping a minor player, Mueller cornered and caught former campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopolous, in order to obtain evidence of criminal behaviour by more senior actors. Vox explained the strategy this way: "Monday's big news revealed Mueller's strategy: treat the Trump campaign like the mafia."
By late September, Mueller had assembled a formidable team of investigative lawyers, skilled in prosecution or defense of financial crimes, money laundering and organized crimes. Several lawyers quit their jobs in order to work with Mueller's task force, or took leave of absence. One was Andrew Weissman, who took a leave of absence from his job leading the Department of Justice criminal fraud unit. Another, Michael Drebeen, has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court.
The New York Times reminds readers that there is no question about whether Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, "The United States has concluded that President Vladimir Vladimir Putin of Russia tried to tip the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Mr. Trump." The question is, "Mr. Mueller and his team are investigating whether anyone close to Mr. Trump participated in that effort."
Papadopoulous' co-operation has provided evidence in the affirmative. "It is now clear, from Mr. Papadopoulos's admission and emails related to a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, that the Russian government offered help to Mr. Trump's candidacy and campaign officials were willing to take it," The New York Times affirms.
Papdopoulos' testimony and evidence are compelling. However, any experienced prosecutor (or reporter) wants to show at least two independent sources. Here, Providence has stepped in, in the form of the Paradise Papers leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These 13.4 million documents name the names of people and corporations who have "dark money" hidden offshore in tax havens.
The Paradise Papers allow investigators to follow the money, through multiple shell companies and aliases, to the ultimate payer and payee, who are often the same. One of the first stories to emerge looks at U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Ross was one of the billionaires in Mike Pence's hotel room on election night, along with David Koch.
The BBC reported Ross "was accused of misleading senators after leaked documents showed his interests in a firm in which some shareholders have ties to the Kremlin. [Ross] told the BBC that the U.S. had not sanctioned the company, Sibur, so 'there's nothing wrong with that'." Ross also denied he had failed to disclose the information.
The ICIJ also reported that Kremlin-owned firms were linked to major investments in Facebook and Twitter during the election, "The records show that one of the Kremlin-owned firms, VTB Bank, quietly directed $191 million into an investment fund, DST Global, that used the money to buy a large stake in Twitter in 2011. They also show that a subsidiary of the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom heavily funded an offshore company that partnered with DST Global in a large investment in Facebook...."
When Facebook went public in 2012 and Twitter in 2013, DST Global's founder, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, and other partners in the deals sold their holdings at huge profits. They say that their interest was purely to turn a profit. But fake news on social media played a huge role in the U.S, election and, until the Paradise Papers, the companies' connection to Kremlin financing was unknown.
Meanwhile, a week after unsealing his first indictments, Robert Mueller apparently has enough evidence to charge former Trump foreign policy adviser Mike Flynn and his son, for laundering money and not registering as lobbyists for foreign governments, including Turkey. And the ICIJ has drawn up an interactive mind map of "influencers" around the U.S. president who also have money hidden in tax havens or invested with foreign governments.
Donald Trump has broken all kinds of records in his first year in office. Looks like the Special Prosecutor and the ICIJ are on track to give him another: the president whose fall took the most other legislators with him. The U.S. now faces the greatest Washington scandal ever uncovered. Robert Mueller may not be able to charge or convict every single member of Trump's team, but he seems determined to get as many as possible. Buckle your seat belts. The ride ahead looks very bumpy indeed.
Image: Elvert Barnes/flickr
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