The President of the United States is now, formally, implicated in a criminal conspiracy to mislead the American public in order to influence an election. Were he not President, Donald Trump himself would almost certainly be facing charges. This news came in what must be considered the most damaging single hour of a deeply troubled
The President of the United States is now, formally, implicated in a criminal conspiracy to mislead the American public in order to influence an election. Were he not President, Donald Trump himself would almost certainly be facing charges. This news came in what must be considered the most damaging single hour of a deeply troubled Presidency.
On Tuesday morning, it was still possible to believe that Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort might be exonerated and that his longtime attorney Michael Cohen would only face charges for crimes stemming from his taxicab business. Such events would have supported Trump’s effort to portray the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” perpetrated by overzealous partisan prosecutors. By late afternoon, though, Cohen, the President’s longtime adviser, fixer, and, until recently, personal attorney, told a judge that Trump explicitly instructed him to break campaign-finance laws by paying two women not to publicly disclose the affairs they had with Trump. At precisely the same moment, Manafort was learning of his fate: guilty on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, with the jury undecided on ten other counts.
The question can no longer be whether the President and those closest to him broke the law. That is settled. Three of the people closest to Trump as he ran for and won the Presidency have now pleaded guilty or have been convicted of significant federal crimes: Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. The question now becomes far narrower and, for Trump, more troubling: What is the political impact of a President’s criminal liability being established in a federal court? How will Congress respond? And if Congress does not act, how will voters respond in the midterm elections?
The President spoke to reporters soon after the Manafort and Cohen news. He said that the Manafort guilty verdicts made him feel “very badly,” but they “had nothing to do with Russian collusion.” He then walked away, as reporters shouted questions about the Cohen guilty plea. While his comment was, technically, correct—neither man’s guilt was for crimes involving the Trump campaign colluding with Russia—the President would be unwise to consider the outcome of either case beneficial. Manafort was convicted of crimes he committed while being paid tens of millions for serving the interests of oligarchs and politicians closely allied with the Kremlin. The trial made clear that Manafort was in tremendous financial distress, in hock to some of those same oligarchs, just when he became Trump’s unpaid campaign chair. The trial contained a central but unasked question: What did this desperate man do when he needed money and had only one valuable asset—access to Trump and his campaign? Manafort, who faces decades in prison, is under renewed pressure to coöperate with Mueller’s investigation and to answer that question.
It is the Cohen plea that should be the most alarming, though, to the President, precisely because it has nothing to do with Russia. Instead, it demonstrates a comfort with law-breaking by people at the core of the Trump Organization. Cohen’s guilty plea is part of a long trail of evidence. Last month, a tape recording of Trump speaking with Cohen showed that the President had familiarity and comfort with the idea of using shell companies to disguise payoffs that, we now know, were illegal. This echoed evidence from depositions in a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against the Trump Foundation that suggested deceptive—and almost certainly illegal—practices were standard at the Trump Organization. Cohen admitted in open court that Trump directed him to violate campaign-finance laws. Later in the day, Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, issued a public statement that included these lines: “Today [Cohen] 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. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
The day had a feeling, on one level, of history, of recognizing that one is living through moments that will become central parts of the Trump Presidency. At the same time, the day felt small and shabby, as we learned more details about the crude crimes of those who surround the President. Manafort and Cohen did not commit clever, subtle crimes; they blatantly and crudely lied. They lied to banks to get money; they lied to the I.R.S. In Manafort’s case, he instructed countless support people to lie on his behalf. In Cohen’s case, it was Trump demanding that a subordinate do the lying. The crimes were not unravelled by brilliant detective work. All it took was law-enforcement officials looking.
It is conventional wisdom these days that views of Trump are fixed: those who hate him can’t hate him more and those who love him can’t be budged, and, all the while, Republicans in Congress will do nothing, no matter what he says or does. There is another way of understanding the impact of Tuesday’s news. Trump was widely viewed to be morally challenged, a man comfortable with pushing the limits of legality, before he was elected. Perhaps he did business with some bad characters, maybe he engaged in some light civil fraud. But that fact had been priced into the election and, anyway, we don’t impeach Presidents for things they did before they were in office. The possibility of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia was a separate matter that was worth investigating because it had to do with his election. Keeping these two matters separate—Trump’s private business and possible campaign collusion—has been an obsession of Trump’s, for obvious reasons. His business cannot withstand this level of scrutiny.
The Cohen plea and the Manafort indictment establish that this separation is entirely artificial. Trump did not isolate his private business from his public run for office. He behaved the same, with the same sorts of people, using the same techniques to hide his actions. It is impossible, after Tuesday, to imagine that a responsible congressional investigation wouldn’t thoroughly examine every deal with which Cohen was involved and wouldn’t even more aggressively seek to understand Manafort’s links to Russian figures. These two men are now convicted financial fraudsters, each found guilty of precisely eight counts of various financial crimes, though nobody, glancing at their record, would imagine this is an exhaustive list. Tuesday was not the end of an examination of their record; it is much more like a beginning. Manafort has another trial ahead, as well as a possible retrial for the ten counts for which the jury could not reach a consensus; Cohen is all but screaming that he has more to share.
What will this add up to? Well, at first, nothing. The Republican leadership has, indeed, made clear that its instinctive response to any Trump outrage is silence. And the increasingly desperate Trump apologias have already been tried: this has nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do with Trump, it’s a witch hunt, the President can’t be indicted.
It would take some remarkable news to shake Republicans from their moral slumber; while Tuesday’s events should be more than enough to do so, it is already clear that they aren’t. However, it could shake that small portion of the electorate that voted for Trump but never embraced him fully; even a slight downturn in Republican turnout could well mean a victory for Democrats in the midterms, which, in turn, will guarantee a far more aggressive—and far more public—investigation into the activities of Trump and his shadier cronies. Tuesday’s news also helps build an increasingly compelling case for impeachment and removal from office. It is now clear that the President engaged in at least one conspiracy to hide the truth from the public in an election he won with a tiny margin in three states.
We will know far more about Trump, his business, and his campaign in the months to come. The country will be moving down two tracks simultaneously. There is one track of investigation and prosecution in which more of the people close to Trump fall or coöperate and the man himself appears increasingly vulnerable and desperate.
There is the other track, though, in which he remains President. He will likely successfully transform the Supreme Court and imperil the environment, immigrants, consumers of financial products, and others. Those who carefully study Trump and those around him know where this story likely ends—in humiliation and collapse—but we can’t underestimate his embrace of mendacity and deflection. Shortly after the fateful hour, Trump flew to West Virginia for a rally with some of his strongest supporters. The crowd, referring to Hillary Clinton, chanted, “Lock her up.”