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Trump-Russia: Cover-up worse than the crime?

June 18, 2017

As a young California reporter, I covered the criminal trial of storied Mafia boss Joe Bonanno. In his heyday, the Sicilian-born Bonanno ruled the New York crime family that bore his name. By 1980, he was a courtly 75-year-old grandfather living in semi-retirement in the West. I found his prosecution troubling.

The New York tabloids liked to call him “Joe Bananas,” which implied he was unhinged, but that was all wrong. He dressed well, spoke carefully, and was discreet in business, which is why he stayed out of prison. Because he had helped negotiate an end to a gangland war in the 1930s, his rival mob bosses allowed him to walk away from the life they’d chosen. The U.S. government made no such accommodation.

In the late 1970s, he lived in Tucson, Ariz., and managed business interests in California. Although he’d never been convicted of any crime more serious than a labor infraction at a factory he owned, when Bonanno tried to buy a string of Central Valley car dealerships, the feds assumed he was laundering money.

Donald Trump may or may not have been an original “target” of James Comey’s Russia investigation, but Joe Bonanno was in the bureau’s cross-hairs. They put a wire on a Bonanno friend and placed him in Joe’s home, tapped Bonanno’s phones, braced his associates, and even rifled through his garbage. For more than a year, they pursued their quarry with zeal — and came up empty.

Finally, the old man cracked. He instructed his sons, who were the target of a parallel FBI investigation, to toss old financial records and told others to clam up before the grand jury. Just like that, the feds slapped conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges against him. They convicted him, too, which struck some people as poetic justice given his history in New York. It made me uncomfortable, though, especially when a federal prosecutor boasted during closing arguments that the real point of his case was that while heading one of New York’s five crime families, Bonanno had shown “absolute disdain for the law for decades.”

Harassing an old man into committing a technical violation of the statute relating to grand jury investigations seems a curious way of inspiring respect for the law. Then again, maybe that treatment is reserved for mobsters, right? Wrong. Just ask Lewis “Scooter” Libby. A top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby was charged with lying to a grand jury about leaking the identity of Valerie Plame. She was the CIA official who dispatched her husband to Africa to debunk the Bush administration’s official position on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

But Libby almost certainly did not lie, even though he was convicted of obstruction of justice, making a false statement, and perjury. The administration source who leaked the information about Plame turned out to be State Department official Richard Armitage. The special prosecutor knew this, but hid that fact while pursuing felony charges against Libby and criminal contempt charges against New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

There was lying and leaking in this case, but not by Libby. For one thing, Plame denied having any role in sending her husband, Joe Wilson, to Africa. This proved untrue. In the meantime, another leaker was feeding anti-administration material to the New York Times: Joe Wilson, himself. In hindsight, this was a case of criminalizing policy differences, pure and simple.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in that case, had been appointed by a friend, acting Attorney General James Comey. Why was Comey “acting” attorney general? Because the AG had recused himself. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. This time around, as FBI director, Comey wasn’t in a position to appoint a special prosecutor himself. According to his testimony, Comey used strategic leaks to news outlets to get it done. In the end, another Comey ally, Robert Mueller, was appointed as special prosecutor to probe possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Say this about the Washington, D.C., “swamp”: It’s crawling with creatures of habit — and they’re formidable.

The Watergate scandal popularized a phrase, “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” It’s a dubious adage. For one thing, the “plumbers” unit acting on Richard Nixon’s behalf violated not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the Constitution. Also, the cover-up isn’t “worse” than the crime if the cover-up works. And when it came to practicing omerta, Joe Bonanno and his boys had nothing on President Clinton’s “Arkansas mafia,” whose members went to prison rather than rat out Bill or Hillary on the unsavory aspects of the Whitewater land deal.

Stonewalling also served its purpose in the Obama administration. President Obama personally dismissed the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit groups as the work of “two Dilberts in Cincinnati,” which was obviously untrue. Meanwhile, IRS information technology officers erased emails and destroyed the agency’s hard drives, the head of the IRS invoked her Fifth Amendment right to clam up, while the Obama Justice Department ignored it all.

So, no, the cover-up is not always worse than the crime. But what about a cover-up without a crime? This is where we are in the Trump-Russia matter, at least so far. A predicate crime wasn’t required in order to ruin Scooter Libby’s career or send septuagenarian Joe Bonanno to prison. Is it enough to remove a sitting president? With leaks cascading out of Mueller’s investigation — the key one being that the president is under investigation for obstruction of justice for firing Comey — this is no longer an academic question. Nor it is only a legal question; it’s also a political one.

Sixty-two million Americans voted for Donald J. Trump. Anyone wanting to remove him better have more than Jim Comey’s firing or Trump’s own ill-advised and intemperate comments to justify it. The original sin here was supposed to be collusion with Russia, not hints to underlings to drop an investigation the president has called a witch hunt.

If Trump and his associates collaborated with Russian intelligence officials or Russian-affiliated hackers to gain an advantage over Hillary Clinton in 2016, that’s despicable. It’s also a likely felony, and would merit impeachment. If there’s nothing there but bumbling attempts at covering up nothing, well, it would be viewed by Trump’s supporters as an attempt by unelected U.S. bureaucrats, aided and abetted by Democrats and the media, to subvert the results of the 2016 election.

Back in 1980, Joseph Bonanno Jr. met with reporters after his father was sentenced to prison. “This is absolutely ludicrous and certainly unfair,” he told us. “It’s the government who should be on trial here, not my father.”

I harbored sympathy for that view at the time. You’d think true liberals would, too. Twenty years ago, the Democratic Party came to a consensus about the conduct of another president. Yes, Bill Clinton used lies to try to hide his involvement with an unpaid White House intern, they conceded. But he did so only after wandering into a “perjury trap” set by an overzealous special prosecutor. Extramarital relations with an intern isn’t great behavior for a president, but it wasn’t a crime.

In nature, it’s elephants that have long memories. Hopefully, donkeys do, too.

Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.

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