eyes on the U.S.

After Mueller, What's Next For Trump — And America?

Bidding Mueller adieu
Bidding Mueller adieu
Marc Fisher

WASHINGTON — Next, more of the same, but with more entrenched division, a bitter crossfire of allegations and then, finally, a reckoning in the form of the 2020 presidential election.

The long-awaited conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is likely to harden congressional Republicans' wall of support for President Trump, strengthen Democratic demands to hold Trump to account — and result in little change in public opinion, according to historians and politicians who have studied past national scandals.

Mueller's conclusion — he found no evidence of collusion with Russia but was unwilling to exonerate on obstruction of justice — is likely to propel Washington into a period of prolonged and even more heightened partisan combat. The report, as summarized Sunday by Attorney General William P. Barr, contains fuel enough for both sides to cling to their version of the truth about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, and not nearly enough for either side to alter their views.

"It may well be that a good portion of the Republican base will continue to see this as a witch hunt," said David Greenberg, a historian of the presidency at Rutgers University. "In the past, in Watergate and in Iran-contra, some Republicans have been willing to break with their president, but now we're just in a different cultural moment in terms of partisan and ideological rigidity and a right-wing media that keeps the party united behind Trump."

The report is going to deepen the pain and the antagonism.

Trump's supporters in Congress and around the country are likely to tighten their embrace of the president in light of Mueller's conclusion that he did not find evidence that Trump campaign staffers conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election. The news already allowed many Republicans an exhalation of relief on Sunday, fueling hope that some Trump skeptics might be won over and postponing what many conservatives say is an inevitable redefinition of what it means to be a Republican.

"There's no middle on this' divide on Trump, said Craig Shirley, a biographer of the late president Ronald Reagan and a former Republican political consultant. "The report is going to deepen the pain and the antagonism. Even in the first 48 hours after the report was filed, when nobody knew anything, we saw both sides creating their own narrative and conclusions. For now, the party will continue to stand by Trump because of loyalty, fear and political reality."

Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to view Mueller's decision to lay out the facts about any possible obstruction "without reaching any legal conclusions," as Barr put it, as an invitation to further investigation — just as past presidential scandals have led to congressional hearings.

Although many Democrats on Sunday renewed their commitment to a wide-ranging investigation of Trump, Mueller's findings may have complicated their work ahead. Instead of simply reiterating a prosecutor's findings of fact, Democrats in Congress now face the task of pushing back against or at least expanding upon an investigation that they spent the past couple of years defending to the hilt. Already on Sunday evening, some Democrats were questioning how Barr could have so quickly decided that Mueller's findings did not support a charge of obstruction of justice against Trump.

The Democratic leaders in Congress, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), in a joint statement, shifted the spotlight from the bottom-line finding of no collusion to a call for more transparency and the release of the full Mueller report. "The American people have a right to know," they said.

Even if both sides stick to their narratives in the coming months — "stop the witch hunt" vs. "what did the president know and when did he know it?" — that does not mean Mueller's work was pointless.

Mueller, Head of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections — Photo: James Ledbetter

The investigation, which has dominated the news and the president's attention for nearly his entire time in office, was always about far more than the particulars of which Trump campaign officials had what contact with Russians.

Like Watergate, the Iran-contra affair and the Bill Clinton impeachment, the Mueller probe was an investigation but also a morality play, a vehicle for a national inspection of who Americans really are and what values and standards should define the country.

But prosecutors don't probe the nation's soul; they only search for facts and patterns. The searing process of deciding the nation's direction comes after the reports are filed, after the indictments and trials and congressional hearings have run their course.

In one scandal after another in recent American history, the initial investigation has led to congressional hearings and even impeachment proceedings, which in turn have either chipped away at a president's support (permanently for Richard Nixon, temporarily for Barack Obama) or solidified it (both Bill Clinton and Reagan bounced back quickly from investigations).

In recent years, the country's deepening partisan divide has dampened the impact of such investigations. When Republicans in Congress held hearings in 2016 on the deaths of four Americans in a 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, the final report neither found evidence of wrongdoing by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor had any measurable impact on public opinion about the incident.

Democrats called the two-year investigation a "witch hunt," Republicans said it showed that Clinton had misled the public and opinion polls showed that hardly anyone's mind was changed.

The investigations into Trump's acts both as a candidate and as president will now move into a more freewheeling phase, as multiple congressional committees and federal prosecutors' offices look into a vast constellation of alleged misdeeds, including Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. election, Trump's finances, his inaugural committee's fundraising, his family foundation, his business operations after he assumed office and his alleged marital infidelities and payoffs related to them.

The country's deepening partisan divide has dampened the impact of such investigations.

Past presidential scandals tended to be either personal, such as Clinton's White House infidelities with Monica Lewinsky, or political, such as Nixon's campaign of dirty tricks and efforts to obstruct investigations. But the array of allegations against Trump spans from intimately private behavior to official actions in office, and there is as yet little sign of Trump's critics and investigators narrowing their focus.

"There's often a blurring of personal, old-fashioned corruption and more serious abuses of executive power in these investigations," Greenberg said. "In Watergate, investigators eventually chose not to make the bombing in Cambodia or Nixon cheating on his tax returns part of an impeachment," focusing instead on the core issue of crimes Nixon may have committed in his reelection campaign.

"With Trump," Greenberg said, "there are several things going on at once — the money, the sex and Russia. Democrats in Congress will have to decide what they want to look into and what impact that choice may have on public opinion."

On Sunday before the summary's release, both sides were already rehearsing the narrative of the coming period, with Democrats going on TV to say it is too soon to talk about impeachment and Republicans countering that the Democrats intend to impeach Trump no matter what.

"What Congress has to do is look at a broader picture," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We have the responsibility of protecting the rule of law . . . so that our democratic institutions are not greatly damaged by this president."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) countered that what Democrats are "basically saying is they're going to impeach the president for being Donald Trump."

The prospect of at least another 20 months of investigations, allegations and dueling narratives dominating the nation's debate and paralyzing its politics might not seem quite as exhausting if it carried with it the prospect of one side or the other winning over a clear advantage in public opinion.

In past scandals, investigations and a reshaping of popular views of the president have gone hand in hand, historians said. Reagan's popularity sank as Congress investigated his role in a secret arms deal to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, but then sharply rebounded as Reagan waived executive privilege during the investigation and the U.S. economy surged.

Trumpism remains a powerful force.

Similarly, Clinton's popularity bounced back after he was impeached, and some Republicans in Congress broke with their party to support the Democratic president "because the constituents they represented did not believe Clinton should be impeached," Greenberg said. "Now, we're just in a different cultural moment in terms of willingness to break with party."

The Clinton impeachment was the moment that "hardened the political lines and made bipartisanship almost impossible," said Shirley. "We're still living with that today. It would take so much to drive a wedge between Trump and his devoted followers."

Yet a reckoning and a political realignment and redefinition of both parties are underway, even as Trumpism remains a powerful force. Democrats are diving into a debate over just how far to the left they want to travel to be perceived as an attractive alternative, and Republicans are biding their time, waiting to see how durable Trump's takeover of their party turns out to be.

"Only after Trump leaves office will there be a more frank discussion within the Republican Party," Shirley said. "People will make decisions when it's right for them. If the economy turns down, so will the support for Trump. Politics is always about self-interest — of the candidate and of the voters."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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