JAMES COMEY AND THE FBI

I hadn’t planned to write another post until after the November 8 election. But on Tuesday, November 1, lightning struck twice.

First, the FBI used its twitter account to post documents relating to President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich back in 2001. For those who are too young to remember, that presidential action 15 years ago was so controversial that it led prosecutors in the Bush administration to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing. They came up empty.

The second strike came Tuesday evening: the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians and sent the World Series to Game 7.

This post concerns the first bolt from the blue.

Beyond Strange

Taken alone, the FBI’s release of the March Rich documents might have seemed relatively innocuous. But it came on the heels of FBI Director James Comey’s unprecedented letter to Congress on Friday, October 28. Contrary to Donald Trump’s subsequent false assertions, Comey was not “reopening” the Bureau’s closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Rather, Comey said only that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.”

Then it turned out that the emails in question were on former congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer. Reportedly, the emails were to or from his now-estranged wife, Huma Abedin. Then it turned out that the FBI hadn’t even obtained a search warrant to look at any of those Huma Abedin emails that, to Comey, “appeared to be pertinent.” A judge issued the warrant two days after Comey’s explosive letter. Perhaps the FBI director is clairvoyant.

Backlash

The bipartisan outrage against Comey was fast and furious. More than 100 former prosecutors and high-ranking Justice Department officials in Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter chastising Comey for his breach of longstanding Justice Department guidelines relating both to the confidentiality of investigations generally and, most especially, to any actions that could affect an imminent election.

In fact, The New York Times reported on November 1 that precisely those well-established guidelines stopped the FBI from taking overt actions to pursue its investigation of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The issues involve Manafort’s connections to pro-Russia officials and business leaders in Ukraine. The Times also reported that the FBI likewise delayed activities relating to a Clinton Foundation investigation.

Meanwhile, Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics counsel for George W. Bush, filed a formal complaint that Comey’s letter to Congress had violated the Hatch Act. It outlaws misuse of a public office by, for example, seeking to influencing an election.

Who Is James Comey?

Even Comey’s detractors have expressed admiration for his character and integrity. Perhaps that’s justified. But lawyers and judges know that the appearance of impropriety can be problematic. In that respect and as relates to Comey, some facts alone may speak for themselves. So without additional comment, here are some facts about James Comey.

1985: Graduated with a J.D. from the the University of Chicago Law School and clerked for Judge John Walker of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

1987: After a brief stint as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Comey was hired by then-U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani. He was an assistant U.S. Attorney until 1993.

1993-1996: Partner in private practice at McGuire Woods in Richmond, VA.

1996: Deputy special counsel for the Senate Committee investigating the Clintons and Whitewater. Eventually, the process led to appointment of a special prosecutor and President Clinton’s impeachment (for which the Senate acquitted him).

1996-2001: Managing assistant U.S. attorney for Richmond division.

2002-2003: U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where his tasks included supervising the criminal investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich.

2003-2005: President George W. Bush’s appointee as deputy attorney general — the number two person at the Justice Department — reporting directly to John Ashcroft. He became known for his standoff over the no-warrant wiretapping program at Ashcroft’s hospital bedside. According to one report of that internecine Republican battle, “Comey rushed to the room of his bedridden boss to physically stop White House officials from trying to get an ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the program.”

2005-2010: Vice president and general counsel for Lockheed Martin.

2010-2013: Executive at Bridgewater, reported to be the world’s largest hedge fund.

June 21, 2013: President Obama nominates Comey to head the FBI.

July 5, 2016: In a bizarre departure from an investigator’s role, Comey dons his prosecutor hat to announce his recommendation that Hillary Clinton not be indicted for her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. He then offers a similarly unprecedented description of her behavior as, among other things, “extremely careless.”

July 7, 2016: As Congressional Republicans began investigations into Comey’s recommendation, he testifies that he’d been a Republican for most of his adult life, but was no longer a registered member of the GOP.

July-September, 2016: Trump and his surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani, blast Comey for not recommending the indictment of Clinton. Calling the failure a “total outrage,” Giuliani said, “As associate attorney and as Jim Comey’s boss for two or three years, I was very disappointed in him. I think if you read it, it’s logically inconsistent. He contradicts himself at least three times.”

September 28, 2016: For four hours, Comey testifies before the House Oversight Committee, mostly about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server and his recommendation not to indict her.

October 3, 2016: FBI agents seize Anthony Weiner’s laptop and learn quickly that they include some Huma Abedin emails.

October 28, 2016: Comey sends his letter to Congress about additional materials that “appear to be pertinent.” Two days later, the FBI obtains a search warrant to see what those emails actually say.

November 1, 2016: The FBI releases documents responsive to earlier Freedom of Information Act requests relating to President Clinton’s 2001 pardon of Marc Rich. When pressed, the official FBI comment was that its release of the Rich documents were posted “automatically and electronically to the FBI’s public reading room in accordance with the law and established procedures.” This happens, the statement said, on a “first-in, first-out” basis.

And the FBI twitter account that announced the release? Until October 30, it had been dormant for more than a year — since October 8, 2015.

To the FBI’s official comment that the timing of the release was a coincidence, CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin commented, “My official response is, ‘Give me a break.'”

I would add this: Sometimes even paranoid persons have real enemies.

TRUMP’S TAX RETURNS: PART 2 — FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

At an October 10 rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Donald Trump held up a document. Kurt Eichenwald describes what happened next:

“He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal, whom he called ‘sleazy Sidney.’ ‘This just came out a little while ago,’’ Trump said. ‘I have to tell you this.’ And then he read the words from my [Kurt Eichenwald’s October 21, 2015 Newsweek] article. “‘He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,’ Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. ‘This just came out a little while ago.'”

As Eichenwald explains, the words weren’t Blumenthal’s. Trump read from a distorted summary of Eichenwald’s 10,000-word Newsweek article attached to an email to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. It resulted from a Russian disinformation campaign tied to a recent Wikileaks release. A Russian-controlled news agency — Sputnik — reported the false story.

Eichenwald asks, “So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin’s mouthpiece?”

“This is not funny,” Eichenwald continues. “This is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth.”

Which Takes Us Back to Trump’s Income Tax Returns

Compared to Trump’s boast about being a sexual predator, his admission in the second debate that he paid no federal income taxes for years seems almost innocuous. So why does he still refuse to release his returns? Eichenwald’s latest revelation adds more evidence that the answer may be Russia. Like all things Trump, his words and deeds fit a pattern.

“He is not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand,” Trump declared in August. “He’s not going into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos corrected him immediately, referring to Vladimir Putin’s illegal seizure of Crimea.

“OK,” Trump answered. “Well, he’s there in a certain way.”

Worse Than Ignorance?

A month after Trump’s declaration about Putin in Ukraine, he made what Trump’s campaign later called a mistake. Trump appeared on Russian state-sponsored television to criticize America. Meanwhile, he has praised Vladimir Putin continuously: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Never mind that Putin is a cruel dictator who crushes dissent, makes a mockery of human rights, and orders the invasion of sovereign countries. Political opponents and critical journalists disappear or get assassinated. And there’s growing evidence that he’s trying to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

During the first presidential debate, Trump reacted defensively to Hillary Clinton’s concerns about Russians hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers. Rejecting the U.S. law enforcement consensus that Russian intelligence agents were behind that cyberattack, Trump said:

“She keeps saying ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,’ and maybe it was. It could be Russia, but it could be China, could also be lots of other people. It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

And at the second debate, he persisted: “[A]nytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. But they always blame Russia.”

He knows better. Back in mid-August, Trump and his team received intelligence briefings that directly contradict his recent statements. And 48 hours before the second debate, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement that pointed directly to the Kremlin:

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations… We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Why does Trump ignore undisputed evidence, defend Russia, and praise Putin? Here’s one possible answer: the personal financial self-interest of Trump and his top advisers.

Paul Manafort and Ukraine

When Georgetown Law School graduate Paul Manafort took over as campaign manager, the selection seemed to be the harbinger of an extreme makeover. Manafort would attempt for Trump what he’d accomplished for Ukrainian’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, whom Manafort resurrected from disgrace to that nation’s highest office in only five years.

But Manafort’s ties to Ukraine’s pro-Putin former president led to accusations of secret cash payments to Manafort’s consulting firm. Then The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes on a Republican convention platform plank that gutted the GOP’s longstanding support for Ukrainian resistance to the Russian-led intervention. Finally, the Associated Press reported that Manafort’s firm hired Washington, DC lobbyists to influence the American press and U.S. government officials on behalf of the pro-Putin Ukrainian Embassy. The cascading revelations of pro-Russian activity led to Manafort’s resignation.

Boris Epshteyn

After Manafort departed, another Georgetown Law graduate, Boris Epshteyn, became the most visible surrogate defending Trump’s continuing admiration for Russia’s top tyrant. Epshteyn was born in Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1993. Twenty years later, when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg died in 2013, Epshteyn wrote,

“[I]t was the Lautenberg Amendment that allowed my family and me to emigrate to the United States of America in 1993. The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1990, loosened the restriction on refugee states and thereby allowed for tens of thousands of Jews like me from the former U.S.S.R. to come to America. The legislation was also applied to religious minorities from Iran, Vietnam and Burma, as well as other countries.”

Now that he is safely in the United States, Epshteyn supports a candidate who proposed a religious ban to keep others out. After receiving his JD in 2007, Epshteyn went to work at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy. According to his LinkedIn website page, a Russian theme has permeated his activities:

— June 2007 to present (overlapping with his time at Milbank from October 2007 to May 2009): Principal for Strategy International, providing “consulting and liaising services for domestic and international transactions with a focus on Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.”

— June 2009 – July 2013: Managing director of business and legal affairs for West America Securities Corp. His duties were to “originate and locate funding for diverse domestic and international transactions, including private placements, public equity/debt offerings and mergers and acquisitions transactions.”

— July 2013 to present: Managing director of business and legal affairs for TGP Securities, Inc. In that position, he moderated an October 2013 panel discussion for a conference titled, “Invest in Moscow!”

In August 2016, Epshteyn became a senior adviser to the Trump-Pence campaign on “media, communications and foreign policy.” If Epshteyn is the important foreign policy adviser that he claims to be, it explains some of Trump’s bizarre denial about Putin.

Whose Party Line?

“First of all,” Epshteyn told a CNN interviewer on July 31. “Russia did not seize Crimea. We can talk about the conflict that happened between Ukraine and the Crimea…But there was no seizure by Russia. That’s an incorrect statement, characterization, of what happened.”

That’s in line with Trump’s statement to George Stephanopoulos that Putin “is not going into Ukraine.” Observers dismissed Trump’s comment as a gaffe, but it’s the Kremlin’s position. And it’s blatantly false. The international community has condemned Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Period.

Like Trump, Epshteyn also points to Putin’s 82 percent approval rating as proof that Putin is a strong leader. But as Tom Brokaw observed on the September 11 edition of  Meet the Press, “He’s not saying the other 18 percent are on their way to a gulag somewhere.”

All Roads Lead To Trump’s Tax Returns

Trump’s tax returns should confirm what he has now admitted publicly: that he hasn’t owed any federal income tax for years. But a far more sinister explanation for his unwillingness to release the returns is that they could complete a picture of Trump’s business connections to Russia that journalists are piecing together.

David Cay Johnston’s August investigation reveals that Russians are partners with Trump in many American projects: “Trump has tried at least five times to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, including efforts he made during his 2013 trip there. His name is on a 47-story building in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet empire… Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008 that ‘in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.'”

Kurt Eichenwald — the same reporter who revealed Russia’s disinformation effort relating to his 2015 article — published a September analysis in Newsweek: “Hoping to start its branding business in Russia, the Trump Organization registered the Trump name in 2008 as a trademark for projects in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi… If the company sold its brand in Russia while Trump was in the White House, the world could be faced with the astonishing sight of hotels and office complexes going up in downtown Moscow with the name of the American president emblazoned in gold atop the buildings.”

Legal Eagles

Richard Painter and Norman Eisen are former chief ethics attorneys for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. Their op-ed for The Washington Post listed the numerous conflicts that would make a Trump presidency “ethically compromised.” Among the most serious are his family organization’s undisclosed financial ties to Russia, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey.

Labeling Trump’s actual or apparent conflicts “as obscure, profound, and dangerous,” they conclude: “The ethics lawyer who would have President Trump as his or her client would face a far more daunting task than either of us — or any of our colleagues in recent years — has ever confronted.”

“Conflict-of-Interest Laws, You’re Fired!”

How would President Trump resolve the massive conflicts that haven’t been disclosed fully to voters? However he chose. All of those elaborate ethics laws and rules applicable to cabinet members and other high-level government officials don’t apply to the president.

As Norman Eisen elsewhere observes, “Because the President of the United States is the single most consequential decision maker on the planet, Congress has decided his hands shouldn’t be tied on any issue because of conflicts of interest over any potential financial or personal gain.”

In September, Kurt Eichenwald concluded, “Never before has an American candidate for president had so many financial ties with American allies and enemies, and never before has a business posed such a threat to the United States. If Donald Trump wins this election and his company is not immediately shut down or forever severed from the Trump family, the foreign policy of the United States of America could well be for sale.”

The Russians have chosen their candidate for president of the United States. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

TRUMP AND THE RULE OF LAW: ECHOES OF NIXON

Two months ago, I wrote an essay, “Trump and the Rule of Law.” I didn’t contemplate that it would evolve into a never-ending series on the subject. This is part three.

Perhaps history doesn’t repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.

“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent. We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.” – Donald Trump, July 11, 2016

“Law and order is in the interest of all Americans. Let’s just make sure that our laws deserve respect; then, they will be respected by all Americans.” – Richard M. Nixon, 1968

To win the 1968 election, Richard Nixon exploited fear, racial unrest and an unpopular war to exacerbate division. His message resonated with alienated voters who yearned for a bygone time that looked better in hindsight than it had ever been. He offered himself as uniquely capable of fixing anything and everything that was broken.

Shared Disdain For The Rules

Although the differences between 1968 and 2016 are enormous, Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort boasts that his candidate will continue using Nixon’s “law and order” playbook. But the most startling similarity between Nixon and Trump is the divergence of that rhetoric from their common disdain for the rule of law.

Nixon confined his dangerous views to private conversations with confidants; Trump shouts them loudly for public consumption. Those who should be paying closest attention have lost themselves in cynical calculations of personal political self-interest.

“He’ll have a White House counsel,” says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in explaining why he continues to support Trump. “There will be others who point out that there’s certain things you can do and can’t do.”

Senator John McCain rationalizes his tolerance for Trump’s role as his personal abuser-in-chief: “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations. We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”

Senators McConnell, McCain and other Republicans refusing to disavow Trump could benefit by spending some time with President Richard Nixon’s former White House Counsel John Dean.

Magical Thinking Has A Cost

On March 21, 1973, Dean told the President:

“[T]here’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within – close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself… And that is just – and there is no assurance – ”

Nixon: “That it won’t bust.”

Dean: “That, that won’t bust.”

Nixon: “True.”

A month later, Nixon fired him. It takes little imagination to envision Trump delivering that line with gusto: “You’re fired!” While Nixon fiddled with the levers of power for the next eighteen months, the country burned. The United States languished in its most severe recession since World War II and the business of governing slowed to a crawl.

Reticent Republicans

Then as now, prominent Republicans were slow in reacting to Nixon’s attack on the rule of law. Eventually, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered release of Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes and the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment. Only then did key Republican leaders, including Senator Barry Goldwater, urge Nixon to step down because – at long last – there were enough Republican votes in the Senate to join Democrats in convicting him.

Nixon lost his fight with Congress and the courts. But the margin was thin and for a year-and-a-half the country suffered immeasurable collateral damage. A search for the origins of current public distrust in government could start with the events culminating in Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Unabashed Lawlessness

Nixon thought he was above the law, but didn’t admit it publicly until three years after leaving office: “When the President does it, it means it’s not illegal.”

Trump’s similar revelations occur in real-time. Even conservative legal commentators express concern for his unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of presidential power. As University of Chicago/NYU Law Professor Richard A. Epstein puts it, “I think Trump doesn’t even think there’s an issue to worry about. He just simply says, whatever I want to do, I will do.”

The Complete Makeover That Never Will Happen

On April 21, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort assured Republican National Committee members that Trump’s antics during the primaries were an act.

“That’s what’s important for you to understand – that he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving now into the part you’ve been expecting… Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives. You can’t change somebody’s character, but you can change the way a person presents himself.”

Since then Manafort’s candidate has devolved in every way.

It Starts And Ends With The Patient

Who was to blame for all of those outbursts? Certainly not Trump himself. On June 20, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski took the fall.

“We’re going to go a little bit in a different route from this point forward,” Trump said. “A little different style.”

Since then Trump has:

  • Described Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union as good for his Scottish golf course business;
  • Called Senator Elizabeth Warren a racist;
  • Described Jews as unduly sensitive about a campaign tweet slamming Hillary Clinton as corrupt – with dollar bills in the background and the Star of David in the foreground;
  • Invited Putin to hack the computers of Democratic rivals;
  • Smeared the Muslim religion with innuendo about a Gold Star mother of a veteran who’d died saving his fellow soldiers; and
  • Assured the world that Putin is “not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want” — even though most of the world knows that Putin is already there.

At public events, his audiences cheer. Richard Nixon knew what that was about: “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”

Where’s The Bottom?

Trump’s apologists cling to the self-deceptive notion that he’s just rejecting political correctness. Here’s the truth: almost daily he says something that is simply wrong — factually, legally, and/or morally. Often he hits the trifecta with a single shot. It’s not a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of correctness — period.

Manafort misdiagnosed his candidate’s underlying problem as something distinct from character. Trump’s personality is an extension of his character. At age 70, he remains what he has always been and always will be. But don’t take my word for it; take his.

As Trump told the press during his Memorial Day rampage against another frequent Nixon target – the media: “You think I’m going to change? I’m not changing.”

He means it. When it comes to character, decency and respect for the rule of law, Donald Trump is Richard Nixon on steroids with a megaphone and no internal filter. What we see is what we will continue to get until November when the worst reality show ever comes to an end.

ONE LAWYER’S DILEMMA

Paul Manafort is campaign chairman and chief strategist for Donald Trump. He also has a law degree from Georgetown. That combination has landed him in a tough spot.

The J.D. from Georgetown means Manafort can’t plead ignorance about the significance of Trump’s escalating attack on the rule of law. As The New York Times reported recently, reliably conservative legal scholars express deep concern over Trump’s failure to acknowledge the limits of presidential power. Uniformly, every high-level Republican has repudiated Trump’s criticisms of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the cases against Trump University:

Senator Mitch McConnell: “I couldn’t disagree more with what he had to say.”

Representative Paul Ryan: “I completely disagree with the reasoning behind that.”

Former majority leader Newt Gingrich, who has made no secret of his vice-presidential ambitions on a Trump ticket: “This is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made. I think it’s inexcusable,”

And that backlash came before June 5, when Trump added all Muslims to his growing list of “possibly” biased judges who can’t give him a fair shake in a courtroom because their ethnicity collides with his most vile public policy pronouncements.

Manafort Knows Better, Even If His Client Doesn’t

Trump is no stranger to litigation. According to USA Today, his personal and business interests have been involved in more than 3,500 state and federal legal actions — 70 of them filed after announcing his presidential bid. Playing a game that’s worse than identity politics, he’s now engaged in a full frontal assault on the integrity of the judiciary for obvious personal gain in a private lawsuit. At best, it’s unseemly. At worst, it’s could be an unlawful attempt “to influence, intimidate or impede” a judge “in the discharge of his duty” (18 U.S.C. Section 1803) and/or “obstruct the administration of justice” (18 U.S.C. Section 401).

At Georgetown, Paul Manafort learned the legal rules governing every litigant’s right to challenge a judge’s fairness. Prevailing on a motion to recuse requires a factual showing, not a racist rant. The law is well settled that ethnicity or national origin is not a valid basis for disqualification. In fact, a recusal motion on those grounds would be on the receiving end of sanctions for frivolous pleading. It’s no accident that Trump’s outside lawyers — led by the widely respected Daniel Petrocelli at O’Melveny & Myers — haven’t pursued that path.

Enter Manafort

When Trump hired Manafort in April, Senator Ted Cruz was collecting more than his share of delegates from states where Trump had won the popular vote. Trump complained that the system was “rigged,” “corrupt” and “crooked.” Manafort’s assignment was to corral Trump delegates and keep them in line to avoid a contested convention.

In 1976, Manafort was involved in a similar task. Only two years out of law school, he was was President Gerald Ford successful “delegate-hunt coordinator” for eight states during Ronald Reagan’s attempt to wrest the nomination. After Ford lost the general election, Manafort spent three years working for a private law firm in Washington, D.C.

When Reagan prevailed in 1980, the president nominated him to the board of directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — the government’s development finance institution. At that point, what would become Manafort’s lucrative career began. Since 1981, he’s been a lobbyist and consultant, sometimes for notorious international clients.

Master of Extreme Makeovers

In 2005, Manafort became an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, whose political career seemed over after losing the Ukranian election for prime minister. With the help of Manafort, Yanukovych won in 2010 by exploiting popular frustration with government, exacerbating cultural divisions within the Ukranian electorate, and railing against NATO.

Sound familiar? History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Cue the Trump assignment.

His Latest Client Makeover

On April 21, 2016, newly appointed Manafort assured members of the Republican National Committee that Trump’s rhetorical antics were just an act for the crowd.

“That’s what’s important for you to understand – that he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving now into the part you’ve been expecting…”

A month later, Manafort had accomplished his delegate mission and received a new title: campaign chairman and chief strategist. Since then, Trump’s attacks on the rule of law have intensified. It now appears that, in contrast to Manafort’s April 21 prediction, the only thing that Trump has “played” is Manafort as he dutifully lined up establishment Republicans who fell in line.

As uncomfortable as Trump’s statements have made those establishment Republicans, none has stepped forward to defend their candidate’s recent outbursts. None has repudiated his or her endorsement, either. Even as they decry Trump’s comments as deplorable, they implicitly suggest that his problem is speaking vile thoughts, not that he has them.

What Could Be Worse?

The same supporters rationalize their continuing support of Trump by assuring themselves that Hillary Clinton as president would be worse. They can’t possibly know that. Senator Bob Corker said that Trump — who turns 70 this month — “is going to have to change.” But change to what? Has anyone ever tried to change a 70-year-old billionaire’s fundamental beliefs, character, or behavior? Besides, Trump has made it clear that he has no desire to change. His approach has worked.

Corker’s position is a triumph of hope over reality. As for Trump’s positions, beyond divisive and destructive rants and branding tag lines –“We’ll make America great again” and “We’ll build a wall” — no one can state with confidence what they will be in five minutes, much less what they would become if he won the presidency.

Which takes us back to Paul Manafort, who assured RNC members in April that Trump was evolving. He went on to say, “Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives. You can’t change somebody’s character, but you can change the way a person presents himself.”

Either Manafort shares responsibility for encouraging Trump’s subsequent evolution, or he has an uncontrollable client. If it’s the former, he has put his candidate and his country on a treacherous course; he knows that from his legal training at Georgetown. If it’s the latter, his Trump-tarnished reputation will continue to deteriorate as he remains the campaign’s top strategist. Either way, he’s already lost. And so has the country.