Cohen pleads guilty and Manafort convicted. US dumps Clean Power Plan. US joint exercises in NT. Police raid domestic intelligence agency in Austria. By Hamish McDonald.

Cohen’s admissions implicate Trump

Michael Cohen exits Federal Court in New York City on Tuesday.
Michael Cohen exits Federal Court in New York City on Tuesday.
Credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

While the politics in Canberra was taking on Trumpian overtones this week, the net cast by the former FBI director Robert Mueller around the United States president drew tighter with the rollover of his lawyer and convictions against his former campaign director.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of election funding violations, and telling a court in New York that he’d violated federal law “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office”. Cohen said, “I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”

One of Cohen’s legal team elaborated outside the court that Cohen had “stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election”. The two women were porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, paid large sums by Cohen in 2016 to stay silent about the extramarital affairs with Trump, who Cohen says reimbursed him.

A Federal Court jury in Virginia later on Tuesday found Paul Manafort, for a time manager of Trump’s election campaign in 2016, guilty on eight charges of tax evasion and fraudulent borrowing from banks. These are important scalps for Mueller, appointed as a special counsel with sweeping powers to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and any collusion with Trump’s team. The technique seems to be to shake down the suspects for any dirty financial secrets and pile up enough charges to have them put away for life, in order to get them to talk about the core issue. So far 32 people have been charged.

The Cohen admissions directly implicate Trump. As Cohen’s lawyer asked: “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” The Manafort convictions are more concerned with his sleazy connections with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, and his desperate attempts to play these for personal financial advantage by promising influence with Trump. Yet they point to possible charges against Trump’s son Donald Jr and other family circle members over a meeting with Russian operatives in June 2016 connected to the WikiLeaks cache of emails embarrassing Trump’s Democrat rival.

Trump was quick to say Manafort’s conviction “doesn’t involve me” and had nothing to do with any Russian collusion. He’s probably hoping hints of a pardon will keep Manafort shtum. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed after Cohen’s plea that, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen.”

Earlier in the week Giuliani got into a tangle on Fox News about his advice should Mueller subpoena Trump to testify to his inquiry. “I am not going to be rushed into having [Trump] testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani said. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

“Truth is truth,” the interviewer insisted.

“No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth,” Giuliani replied.

Coal comfort

We’ve had no porn stars or Playmates surfacing in Canberra, just a ministerial affair with a staffer, and what Beijing’s attack-dog tabloid Global Times called a “low version of Trump” (that is, Peter Dutton). But we have had coal, and, like many Coalition MPs, Trump loves the stuff and the people who dig it up and burn it.

This week his administration unveiled what it calls Affordable Clean Energy, dumping Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan aimed at helping limit global warming by pressuring power companies to switch to green energy sources that emit less carbon dioxide.

“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal,” Trump told a rally on Tuesday in the coalmining state. “And you know, that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills – they fall down real quick. You can blow up pipelines – they go like this,” he said, waving his hand down. “You can do a lot of things to those solar panels. But you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.”

Trump’s plan lets states set their own emission targets and is seen likely to raise coal power generation by up to 10 per cent by 2035. Aside from the climate effects, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fine print estimates that by 2030 it will also cause up to 1400 more premature deaths each year of heart and lung disease, 48,000 new cases of “exacerbated asthma” and 21,000 more missed school days due to increased pollution.

Base materials

In the background, the linkages between Australian and US defence forces are getting ever closer, with Defence Minister Marise Payne recently revealing that $2–3 billion will be spent over the next decade on improved facilities for joint exercises in the Top End.

These will happen at the air bases in Darwin and Katherine, the barracks in Darwin where eventually a full US Marine Corps battle group will be housed for six months every year, and training grounds and bombing ranges farther out in the territory. Payne says the spending will be split but is not saying in what proportions for “national security reasons”, which suggests Canberra is footing most of the bill.

Underwriting this is a “force posture agreement” stating that US forces and their contractors “shall have unimpeded access to Agreed Facilities and Areas for all matters relating to the pre-positioning and storage of defence equipment and supplies including delivery, management, inspection, use, maintenance and removal of such pre-positioned material. As mutually determined by the Parties, aircraft, vehicles and vessels operated by or for United States Forces shall have access to aerial ports and sea ports of Australia and other locations, for the delivery to, storage and maintenance in, and removal from, the territory of Australia of United States Forces’ pre-positioned material.”

Critics say this creates, in effect, US bases in Australia from which offensive operations can be directly launched against third countries. Canberra insists this is just a regular “rotation” of US forces, and would no doubt claim a right to veto any attack from Australian soil. The agreement is for 25 years, but can be terminated by either party at a year’s notice.

Kickl inside

Vladimir Putin was a guest at the wedding last Saturday of Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl, at a vineyard in alpine Gamlitz, and had a dance with the dirndl-clad bride, while recently elected chancellor Sebastian Kurz, his deputy from the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, and other cabinet members looked on.

But stranger things are happening in Vienna. On February 28, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, also of the Freedom Party, sent police into the headquarters of the domestic intelligence agency, the BVT, from where they carted off crate-loads of secret files. To old Canberra hands, it will recall then attorney-general Lionel Murphy’s 1973 “raid” by federal police on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

Among the reasons Kickl gave for his search warrant was a bizarre one: that the BVT was working with South Korea’s spooks to purloin blank copies of North Korean passports, which are printed in Austria. Kickl’s real reason, many analysts think, was to see what the BVT had on violent right-wing groups, including Islamophobes and anti-Semites, who tend to support the Freedom Party, founded in the 1950s by a former SS officer.

Many of Austria’s intelligence partners would applaud such an operation against the North Koreans, along with the BVT’s work against Islamic extremists and Russian interference, and are said to have suspended intelligence exchanges with Vienna.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 25, 2018 as "The truth isn’t out there, Mueller".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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