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Paul Manafort and the Five Stages of 'Mueller Derangement Syndrome'

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaving the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., in February. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

There’s one thing you can count on when the first of two scheduled trials involving former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort gets underway this week in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va. No, it’s not that Manafort, who faces 18 felony counts of financial fraud and tax evasion, will be convicted. When it comes to jury trials, convictions are never a sure thing. Just ask Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, the Los Angeles deputy district attorneys who lost the O.J. Simpson case despite a mountain of evidence amassed against the football star.

The one sure thing is that Manafort’s trial will ignite a new outbreak of what I like to call, following the argot of the day, Mueller Derangement Syndrome (MDS). This is the paranoid belief that Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling with the 2016 election is a neo-McCarthy witch hunt spearheaded by a globalist “deep state” Obama/Clinton conspiracy that stealthily pulls the strings of American political life.

The syndrome is most prevalent among Trump supporters, whose ranks range from off-the-hinge zealots like Alex Jones to the hacks on Fox News and, of course, the president’s biggest cheerleader—himself. The syndrome, too, has spread to some quarters of the left, where leeriness of purported Russian wrongdoing abounds because of the hypocrisy and lies the country has been fed for years about foreign policy.

It’s also true that the mainstream corporate media (MSM), led by cable TV giants CNN and MSNBC, has a syndrome of its own, which will kick into a higher gear with Manafort in the dock. The MSM has long been fixated on the Mueller probe, covering its every nuance at the expense of other important stories. The fixation is regrettable and misguided—and it does a disservice to viewers interested in learning more about Trump’s policies on immigration, the environment, health care, the economy and other substantive issues—but at least it isn’t divorced from reality.

Not so with the derangement syndrome.

Like the fabled five stages of grief that follow personal loss and tragedy—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—MDS is dynamic rather than static, consisting of phases rather than a single unchanging attitude or perspective. For many individuals and groups, there isn’t a neat movement from one step to the next. The stages often overlap, and just when it seems progress has been made, regression can occur.

Nonetheless, as with grief, the first foundational stage of MDS is denial. Those caught up in the syndrome deny both that Russia interfered with the American election, and that Mueller’s work is legitimate. The facts, unfortunately, indicate the contrary.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to the position of special counsel on May 17, 2017. The appointment was made eight days after Trump had fired former FBI Director James Comey and six days after Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt in a nationally televised interview that he had dismissed Comey, at least in part, because the FBI had opened an investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and Russia.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in March 2017, Comey revealed that the FBI’s investigation began in July 2016, after some 30,000 Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails and attachments were published by WikiLeaks and DCLeaks, a now-shuttered website thought to have been a cyber-espionage front created by the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, the country’s principal intelligence agency (known as GRU, for short).

Under the terms of his appointment, Mueller is authorized to examine “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and … any matters that … may arise directly from the investigation.”

So defined, Mueller’s mandate is quite broad. It applies not only to collusion and possible obstruction of justice by the president, but to any crimes committed by Trump campaign officials and associates revealed by the investigation, such as Manafort’s long history of questionable financial transactions.

To date, Mueller has filed more than 100 charges against 32 individuals and three companies. Five people have pleaded guilty, including retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who has admitted lying to the FBI about conversations he had in December 2016 with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Rick Gates, Manafort’s former lobbying partner, also has entered a guilty plea to financial fraud and lying to the FBI and is acting as a cooperating prosecution witness against Manafort.

In Manafort’s case, the alleged malfeasance that Mueller’s team will try to prove this week dates back to 2006 and stretches forward to the middle of 2016, when Manafort negotiated a series of real estate loans totaling $16 million from the Federal Savings Bank (FSB) of Chicago as part of a quid pro quo scheme to help FSB’s founder, Stephen Calk, land a position with the Trump administration. During the campaign, Calk was named to Trump’s economic advisory council, but thus far has not received a White House position. He has denied all wrongdoing in connection with Manafort. Two of his FSB associates, however, have been granted immunity to testify for the government in Manafort’s trial.

Among collusion denialists, the most influential, hands down, has been Trump. During the first presidential debate in September 2016, the soon-to-be 45th commander in chief famously shouted: “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. [Hillary Clinton’s] saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

Prior to the debate, both Trump and Clinton had received classified briefings by intelligence agencies that had implicated Russia in the hacking incidents. Trump, apparently, was unpersuaded.

He remains unconvinced today, despite the grand jury indictment filed by Mueller on July 13 against 12 Russian intelligence operatives, which lays out in painstaking detail exactly how the Democratic emails were hacked. In the news conference held after his July 16 summit with Vladimir Putin, Trump said without hesitation, all but genuflecting before the Russian leader, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered with the election. After returning home, Trump offered a comical retraction, claiming he had meant to say he saw no reason “it wouldn’t be Russia,” but even then, he once again allowed for the possibility of other culprits. The president remains mired in denial.

Trump also illustrates the second stage of MDS: anger.

Between May 2017 and June 28 of this year, according to CNN reporter David Gelles, Trump condemned the Mueller investigation in outbursts on Twitter no less than 78 times.

He has attacked James Comey on Twitter and elsewhere as “incompetent,” “shady,” “slippery,” “corrupt,” “sanctimonious,” a “liar” and a “slimeball,” and tarred Mueller as “Comey’s best friend.” On Saturday, he added to the invective, tweeting the Mueller probe was a “witch hunt” and “an illegal scam.”

Long before Mueller came on the scene, Trump was prepared to aggressively discredit any attempt to link the DNC hacking to Russia and his campaign. As Wired reported on June 15, 2016, a day after The Washington Post noted that the DNC had been hacked and six days after the Trump Tower meeting between Russian operatives, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Manafort and others, the Trump campaign issued a statement, declaring: “We believe it was the DNC that did the ‘hacking’ as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.”

As if taking a cue from the campaign, other denialists eventually pointed to a deceased DNC staffer named Seth Rich as the source of the email leaks. As I explained in a Truthdig column last August, Rich, who was murdered at the age of 27 on a Washington, D.C., street in the early morning hours of July 10, 2016, became a buzzword in right-wing media, which portrayed him as a disgruntled Bernie Sanders backer who gave WikiLeaks the DNC’s emails and was gunned down from behind in reprisal and to silence him.

The Rich conspiracy theory reached its apogee in May 2017, when Fox News posted a story online, claiming that law enforcement sources had verified Rich’s role in the email scandal. Within a week, however, Fox was forced to pull the story as unfounded. Since then, Fox and others responsible for promoting the conspiracy have been sued for defamation by a private investigator hired by Rich’s family and by the family itself.

While the litigation has for the time being quelled talk of the conspiracy, the more generalized anger among Trump supporters over the Mueller probe continues to seethe. Just last week, a group of 11 House Republicans, led by Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, introduced five articles of impeachment against Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s supervisor.

In addition to denial and anger, Mueller Derangement Syndrome has its parallel to the third stage of grief—bargaining.

Since Trump insisted in a Rose Garden news conference in June 2017 that he would be “100 percent” willing to testify about Russian meddling, negotiations have been ongoing between Mueller and Trump’s ever-changing cast of legal counsel as to how the president might deliver on that promise.

Since assuming the lead position as Trump’s attorney in April, Rudy Giuliani has flip-flopped more than a dying fish on whether the president should remain silent, agree only to answer written interrogatories, or submit to a limited oral deposition. On July 6, the former New York City mayor laid down a new precondition, demanding that Mueller prove the president had committed a crime before seeking any testimony. With the midterm elections approaching, the negotiations and bargaining no doubt will continue.

There is also evidence of the fourth stage of grief—depression—in Mueller Derangement Syndrome.

Although Trump personally seems impervious to such mood swings, other Republicans are showing telltale signs. At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in early July, Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., his tie unfastened and his head propped up on his right hand, berated Rosenstein and current FBI Director Christopher Wray, imploring them to finish the Mueller probe:

Russia isn’t being hurt by this investigation right now. We are. This country is being hurt by it. … We need to see the evidence. If you have evidence of wrongdoing by any member of the Trump campaign, present it to the damn grand jury. If you have evidence that this president acted inappropriately, present it to the American people. There’s an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. I think right now all of us are being denied. Whatever you got, finish it the hell up because this country is being torn apart.

Sadly, for Gowdy and other Trump backers unhappy with the length of the Mueller investigation, the end is nowhere in sight. By historical standards, the investigation has proceeded at a rapid clip, and is still in its prime.

The Mueller probe is entering its 14th month. By contrast, the House Select Committee hearings on Benghazi spanned 25 months. The Whitewater investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment took 80 months, as did congressional inquiries into the Iran-Contra scandal. Richard Nixon was not called to testify before the Watergate grand jury until June 1975, a full three years after the infamous burglary of the Democratic Party Headquarters. Criminal appeals in the case dragged on for another two years.

Unless Trump fires Mueller and gets away with it, the president’s supporters can expect additional phases of depression.

Thus far, few hardcore denialists have reached the final stage of MDS: acceptance.

A small number, however, have, but with a toxic twist. As recently reported by The Atlantic, some Trump voters in the aftermath of the Putin summit have publicly announced they believe the claims of Russian meddling, but think the meddling was a good thing because it helped block the election of Hillary Clinton. To illustrate the new phenomenon, The Atlantic quoted Cassandra Fairbanks, a writer at the right-wing news and conspiracy website Gateway Pundit, who remarked: “I mean, I would be cool with it. I’m already there. If Russia was involved, we should thank them.”

Hopefully, as the Manafort trial unfolds over the next two to three weeks, additional deniers will change their minds and begin to view the Mueller investigation more constructively. Mueller is far from being a savior of democracy, but right now, the inquiry he heads is the best vehicle we have to reveal the truth behind Trump’s improbable and disastrous rise to the presidency.

Then again, as with the stages of grief, regression is always a possibility.

Bill Blum
Contributor
Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam ("Prejudicial Error," "The Last Appeal" and "The Face of Justice") and is a…
Bill Blum

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