News & Politics

Criminal investigator explains how Mueller 'will ultimately be victorious'

In an effort to understand what may happen next in the Russia scandal, and in Robert Mueller's investigation of President Trump and his inner circle, I recently spoke with veteran defense attorney and criminal investigator Seth Abramson.

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

In an effort to understand what may happen next in the Russia scandal, and in Robert Mueller's investigation of President Trump and his inner circle, I recently spoke with veteran defense attorney and criminal investigator Seth Abramson. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent, the New York Times bestseller "Proof of Collusion: How Donald Trump Betrayed America." Abramson has also been a regular commentator for numerous major news outlets, including the BBC, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, PBS and ABC News.

This is the second part of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Read the first part of this interview here.

We have learned that Paul Manafort apparently violated his plea deal with Mueller and was both lying to prosecutors and feeding information back to Trump via the latter's attorneys. Why is that so wrong? How would you respond to Trump's defenders who say that Mueller was trying to ensnare Manafort with a "perjury trap"?

[What Manafort did] is completely inappropriate. It is completely atypical. It is unethical, possibly illegal.

People who are using the term "perjury trap" generally, at least that I’ve seen online and in the media, don’t know what they’re talking about. A perjury trap really doesn’t exist in the way that it’s been discussed by Trump and his allies. To commit perjury, you have to be lying about a material fact that is relevant to a criminal investigation and would be critical and would be critical to the prosecution of a federal criminal case.

Donald Trump comes out and says, “Well, if you say something wrong about the weather you're going to be charged with perjury.” That’s not true. It has to be a material fact, number one. Number two, often prosecutors will give you opportunities to give full, complete and honest testimony. It is not the first recourse of any federal prosecutor to charge someone with perjury. You are only trying to charge someone who has deliberately, repeatedly given up any chance to correct themselves in regard to lying about a material fact. In doing so, by the way, they usually have hindered some federal criminal prosecution that is of great importance.

Now, in this case, you have Donald Trump through the media and apparently through his attorneys, dangling a pardon to Paul Manafort and getting that communicated to through Manafort’s attorney. That in and of itself is an act of obstruction. Even if we say that Donald Trump, under the Constitution, can pardon Paul Manafort, Trump could still be charged with an impeachable offense for a pardon that was an act of obstruction of justice.

Manafort's behavior is also what one would see in the mafia, where the underlings are willing to do anything to protect the boss.

Absolutely. The former director of the FBI, Jim Comey -- someone who knows the patterns of organized crime quite well -- said that in his very first conversations with Donald Trump, the ethos, the philosophy of living and working in the world that he sensed in the man, was that of someone in the mafia.

We need to trust Comey's opinion based on his experience. But frankly, any of us who have worked in the legal field can see the criminal bent that Donald Trump has. Trump attempts to infuse and inject those values into those who are his lackeys so they will be willing to commit crimes for him.

The total number of lies that Michael Cohen appears to have told to protect Donald Trump cannot be counted on one hand. Each one is prosecutable as an offense that could put Cohen in prison.

What I am amazed at is that Trump somehow manages to raise up this level of loyalty among his cronies, but it’s obvious that he would never show that loyalty to them. Again, we see that same pattern in the mafia.

Manafort seems willing to take the fall because Trump will pardon him. But could it also be that given the parties involved, such as Vladimir Putin, Russia oligarchs and the Russian intelligence agencies, Manafort may be afraid of what could happen to him and his family if he were to tell the truth?

That is certainly something that people have speculated on. There’s no question that Paul Manafort was in bed, business-wise with some of the most dangerous people on earth. There’s no question, based upon how Vladimir Putin and some of his chief allies among the Russian oligarchs have conducted themselves, that these are individuals who are not above harming innocents. Paul Manafort could be concerned about that.

Unfortunately, it all becomes speculation at this point. I’d say this: None of the possibilities are anything that one can feel sanguine about. Either Paul Manafort is absolutely sure of an obstruction-of-justice-enabled pardon by Donald Trump or he was in bed with some of the most dangerous people in the world or he is of such a criminal bent that he somehow believes that he can get away with virtually anything, commit as many crimes as he wants and never be caught. In which case it’s really terrifying, because he ran a presidential campaign.

What would you tell Donald Trump if you were his attorney?

First of all, that’s a position I would never want to be in. As I mentioned before, this is the first case I’ve really ever come across where I can’t find any exculpatory evidence. Keep in mind, as a defense attorney, that’s what you're trained to look for. I'm not coming from the prosecution end of this. I’ve represented thousands of people, read thousands of police reports, was trained both in law school and thereafter in practice to look for exculpatory evidence, and I can’t find it. That is why you see Donald Trump’s attorneys doing the most they can with what they have.

They have two particular things they have to think about. One is that Trump's attorneys will never have what you call client control, and they know that. They will never be able to tell their client what to do, stop him from hurting himself, stop him from committing crimes, stop him from making his situation worse, no matter what they say. It’s clear that they don’t even try. I should tell you that client control is a must in any course of criminal representation and if you don’t have any of it, you try to find a way to withdraw from the case because you can’t adequately represent that client. Clearly, his attorneys have given up on that altogether.

The second consideration that Trump's attorneys clearly committed to is that because you can’t indict and try Donald Trump while he’s a sitting president -- and Rudy Giuliani has said this before -- their attitude is that this is a purely political case. They’re going to represent Donald Trump as though this is simply a political matter of whether there are 67 votes for conviction in the U.S. Senate.

So many of the decisions Trump's attorneys are making, so many of the things that they are saying publicly, are things no attorney would ever do or say who has any self-respect and doesn’t want to face professional discipline from the American Bar Association.

There is another dimension to consider as well. People say to me, “Well, sometimes you seem to present Trump as a criminal mastermind. Other times you seem to be presenting him as someone who’s stupid.”

There is a very particular type of intelligence that someone who is pathologically criminal possesses. That is that they have an incredible instinct for their own self-preservation. They have an incredible instinct for their own gain that overwhelms everything else and can make them seem smart in certain respects because they’re able to nose out whatever is in their best interest in terms of making money or benefiting in some other way.

Donald Trump clearly has lived his whole life with that particular type of intelligence. I don’t think he’s a very sophisticated or smart man. I don’t even think he knows very much about business, even though he’s been in business for 30 years. He is smart in the same way, and I’ll only use this analogy because I have dogs that are hounds. Hounds are particularly good at understanding their own self-interest when they want to get food, for instance. They can become the smartest dogs you've ever seen in your life if there is food in the offing.

Otherwise, and I say this regrettably regarding my own dogs, they’re not that smart necessarily. They become smart in the right circumstance. That’s Donald Trump in a nutshell.

Why doesn't Trump just resign, take all his money, go somewhere that he can't be extradited from, and walk away from it all?

Look at it this way. While this is not going to end well for President Trump, he did become president of the United States. Up until a certain point, he would have been able to make the case to someone that he had, for all his past crimes and malfeasance, lived life in a way that allowed him to at least appear successful, have a certain amount of wealth, win the first-ever election that he ran in and become essentially the most powerful man on Earth.

That’s a lot of positive reinforcement for Donald Trump to get. It likewise encouraged his feeling that he will get away with everything he’s been doing for years and everything he did during the campaign. As the old saying goes, “Pride goeth before the fall.” That’s exactly the situation here. He has flown far too high for his skills. He is now exposed in the international sphere for what he is. Again, the end of Donald Trump’s story will be that he will be a new paradigm for treachery to the United States.

As a defense attorney, at what point do you sit down with your client and say, “They've got you dead to rights and now it’s damage control time.” Will somebody ever sit down with Trump and tell him, “Hey, they got you. Now we've got to figure out how to get out of this." 

If you're a good attorney, those conversations do happen. This is something a lot of people don’t understand about being a criminal defense attorney. You can only adequately represent someone if you know the truth about everything. You can’t conduct a competent direct examination or cross-examination at trial. You can’t give competent advice about whether someone should plead guilty or go to trial. You can’t give them advice on anything if you are working off lies.

There are some attorneys, who I consider to be less skilled, who believe that the less they know, the more they are not drawn into whatever is going on. They can perhaps go out and give public statements that they would know were false if they had more information. That "hear no evil, see no evil" attitude seems to be what all of Trump’s attorneys are doing.

None of Trump's attorneys, I would say, seem to be very skilled. I don’t know whether they know the truth or simply suspect the truth, but I will tell you this is the advice Trump's attorneys are likely giving him: "You need to stay in the Oval Office for as long as you possibly can, because the moment you leave the Oval Office, you are going to be indicted. If you can find a way to hold on to 2020 and stay in office another four years after that, then that is what you need to do, because once you leave office you'll be indicted."

That case can be stretched out to a number of years with appeals and so on and so forth. The hope is for Donald Trump to simply -- and I'm going to try to say this as delicately as I can -- he is advanced in years and just in terms of his natural lifespan, there are only so many years that he has left. As his attorney, you would say, “Let’s try to run out the clock essentially on your natural lifespan without you ever having to go inside a prison cell.” That’s the advice you’d be giving Donald Trump right now.

Some observers have suggested that Mueller knew that Manafort was lying, and basically used those lies as a way of later proving Trump's guilt. Is that a viable scenario?

It’s possible. But one thing that I am always wary of is turning anyone in any case into either a superhero or a supervillain, a mastermind for good or a mastermind for evil. Most of the people involved in this case are quite good at what they do. Robert Mueller is a very good prosecutor. The investigators are good investigators. Donald Trump is a very good criminal, or at least he has been up until this point.

Suggesting that each side is hatching these plots to stay six steps ahead is a dangerous game to get into. Yes, it’s possible that Robert Mueller knew that Paul Manafort was lying to him, at least after a certain point following his cooperation plea deal, and made a strategic decision to try to get answers from Donald Trump that would put him in legal jeopardy.

Here’s why I'm not so enamored with that particular plot line. It is very clear to Robert Mueller that he can indict Donald Trump right now for a host of offenses that would put him in prison for the rest of his natural life. I don’t think he’s desperate to get answers from Donald Trump that will add a few additional charges to what he previously had. Mueller probably knew that no matter what happened, Paul Manafort or not, Donald Trump was going to lie in his answers.

Therefore, just getting those answers in writing -- and if they are lies, leading to criminal liability for Donald Trump -- was what Mueller was after.

Thinking about Robert Mueller and his team: You're going down this rabbit hole, you have a set of tasks, you have to get the evidence, you're going to follow it where it may lead. What is that moment like when you start to see the connections and what is revealed is truly horrible?

My book "Proof of Collusion" establishes that it’s far worse than we previously imagined. There have been so many moments during the course of this investigation that I, even as someone who has seen a lot from when I practiced law, was deeply surprised by the level of graft and corruption and criminality and just the sheer scope of it.

Frankly, in some cases, just the sheer scope of the stupidity of some of those involved.

I'm sure that each time Mueller and his team discovered something new, there was a realization that they were involved in a case that will be talked about hundreds of years from now and will absolutely go down in American history as one of the most infamous scandals in any sphere of American life since the founding of the country.

There are a good number of Americans who feel that Mueller is taking too long, and this is all a big controversy over nothing. Others may feel like all politicians are crooks, so who cares? How would you explain the seriousness of the situation to them?

This situation is scary because the president of the United States is fully compromised by multiple hostile foreign nations. What that means is that, at this point, the foreign policy of the United States, at least as it comes out of the executive branch, is effectively an ideological vassal state of our enemies. There is no reason for us to be confident that any decision made by Donald Trump on the question of foreign policy is being made with the best interest of you and your family in mind.

Moreover, I would say that many of his decisions on the domestic front, for instance, his refusal to protect our elections, are being made for the benefit of himself in a corrupt way and those to whom he is clearly beholden overseas. Every American, whether you're Republican or Democrat, it does not matter to him.

You want to be safe. You want your kids to be safe. You want America to have a rule of law. You want us to be a democracy. You want our foreign policy and our values to mean something. Right now, our foreign policy is entirely phony. It was written by people overseas. It was paid for through corruption and graft and payments to the Trump family. That is terrifying to any American. It doesn’t matter what your position is on a climate change or on abortion, you have to think of the country first. This is a national emergency and people should act that way.

I have a theory about how this all plays out. At the end of this scandal Donald Trump may very well end up saying, “Yeah, I did it. I'm a patriot and I did it to stop Hillary Clinton. I dare you to do anything about it.” Do you think that’s far-fetched?

You're half right, because at least as far as Donald Trump is concerned, this isn’t so much a legal case or a legal investigation as it is a political situation. If Trump can stay in office, keep his base and build on it slightly in 2020 -- should he make it that far -- he would be able to save himself from indictment and prosecution until at least 2025. Thus there could be a time when Donald Trump admits, and maybe even is forced to admit, because of all the cooperation deals and all the public evidence that comes out from Robert Mueller and his report, “Yes, I did everything.”

I don’t think his justification would be Hillary Clinton. If you look very carefully at some of these internal communications involving the Russians and Middle Eastern nations, what is consistently referred to is the concept of peace. Donald Trump will attempt to justify his actions by saying that he wanted peace with the Russians, he wanted peace in the Middle East. He took these actions and, sure, they may have benefited him in some way or another because he happens to be a businessman, but ultimately, these were the right foreign policy decisions for him to make. He might make that claim. Hatred of Hillary Clinton is only going to bring along 40 or so percent of the American voting public who hate her.

To survive this, Trump is going to need something much closer to 50 percent of people saying, “Yes, I see now that this is the most treacherous course of conduct any of us have ever heard of in our lifetimes, but he was justified because he was 'promoting peace.'" There are letters in which Felix Sater, Trump's business associate, explicitly tells him to make that case.

What did you miss or underestimate in "Proof of Collusion," given what we're now learning about the investigation, that could come into play later on with indictments or impeachment?

There's a section in Chapter 11 of "Proof of Collusion" that lays out what I've called the "grand bargain." I expect that some of Mueller's forthcoming indictments -- or perhaps other, less dire law enforcement encounters and entanglements -- will include Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Erik Prince, Elliott Broidy, Thomas Barrack, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., all of whom would feature prominently in any future book on Donald Trump's multi-state pre-election collusion.

Given all that we have discussed, is there anything that gives you hope?

As an attorney, as someone who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, I believe in the rule of law and I believe in American democracy. I am confident that nothing Mr. Trump does or any of his allies, in Congress or in business, in politics or his voters, can stop this federal criminal investigation from reaching a just result.

It might take longer than it should. It will certainly be messier than it should be. But everything I see from the Mueller investigation is that it does not leak, it is thoroughly professional. It will be studied, I can tell you, for decades as one of the most effective and professional federal investigative operations anyone has ever seen. Robert Mueller and his team will ultimately be victorious in upholding our rule of law and holding to account those who violated our federal statutes.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.