After Michael Cohen’s day in court, the president is in very real legal jeopardy. It’s now conceivable he could be forced to resign
By Richard Wolffe | The Guardian | August 22, 2018
To lose one of your inner-circle to criminal charges may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two on the same day looks like carelessness.
Donald Trump is nothing if not careless. His type inevitably gets like that as their escapades grow ever more preposterous. Sooner or later, their delusional sense of power and smarts ends in the kind of concrete solitude now being contemplated by Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. The laws do not apply to them until, suddenly, they do.
Of the two legal calamities befalling Trump, the plea bargain of his personal fixer is even more disastrous than the guilty verdicts slapped down on his campaign chairman. Although let’s be honest: the scale of both disasters makes it a close call.
Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women who were allegedly the mistresses of one Donald Trump. All this in the middle of the 2016 election, “at the direction of the candidate,” as Cohen told the court.
Never mind the facepalming deceit and hypocrisy of the candidate who claimed he was running against Crooked Hillary.
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For now we need to stay focused on the very real legal jeopardy facing Crooked Donald. Campaign finance crimes of this kind are not trivial matters: under federal guidelines updated at the end of last year by Trump’s own justice department, a campaign finance crime committed knowingly and willfully amounting to more than $25,000 is what they call a five-year felony.
Just one of Cohen’s payments, made at Trump’s direction, amounted to $130,000.
Of course any normal politician would have died of embarrassment at arranging secret payments to any porn star, never mind one called Stormy Daniels. Any normal politician would have found his career and reputation shredded to the point where he would be too ashamed to stay in public life or, for that matter, any public space.
But as we all know by now, Crooked Donald is entirely abnormal, with no reputation to save, and no sense of shame.
Just seven years ago, a federal grand jury indicted former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards on six counts of breaking campaign finance laws for the exact same scenario as this sitting president: paying hush money to cover up an extramarital affair. Edwards escaped conviction after a jury was deadlocked on most of the charges, and the justice department did not seek a retrial. Edwards disappeared from public view, and his political career came to a definitive end.
It’s hard to imagine Trump making the same choice. He can no more disappear from public view than you can forget your first projectile vomiting. John Edwards was vilified for betraying his inspirational, cancer-stricken wife. Yet even he had more decency and dignity than Donald Trump.
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Until this point, most of the nation’s nattering nabobs have conjured up scenarios about impeachment.
No doubt the pressure for impeachment will only build from here – even without a full-blown conspiracy with a hostile foreign nation to manipulate the election. The current campaign finance crimes on display are more than enough to meet the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors.
But impeachment in a Democratic-controlled House – if this year’s elections proceed as forecast – will ultimately be followed by failure in a Senate trial, where Republicans would need to vote to kick Trump out of office. There is no plausible scenario where this Republican party would do so, even with White House tapes of Trump discussing a Russian conspiracy.
Cohen’s plea bargain suggests we may have sought out the wrong historical figure in the Nixon White House. Nixon was forced to resign by his party and his sense of shame: two factors that are absent today.
Instead we should be looking at Nixon’s first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who was forced out of office by something much more familiar: criminal investigations into conspiracy, tax fraud and bribery, among other things. Agnew had been a corrupt public official since his days as Maryland governor, and the corruption continued into his vice-presidency. A year after his re-election, Agnew accepted a guilty plea bargain on tax evasion and resigned from office.
Until his resignation, Agnew claimed the US Attorney’s investigations were all lies. His lawyers claimed that a sitting vice-president couldn’t be indicted. Both of those arguments collapsed. As one of Agnew’s lawyers recently wrote, there are no constitutional protections against indictment for either a president or a vice-president.
Would Trump resist a plea bargain more than anyone else in his inner-circle? Does he have the spinal fortitude to risk a five-year jail term and a good chunk of his personal fortune for the chance of saving his political career and the undying love of his political base?
He may decide that his base will always love him. He may decide that his freedom is as much about avoiding four more years in the White House as it is about avoiding five years in the Big House. If shame won’t make him quit, perhaps a plea bargain will.
There was a time when we all covered political sex scandals because, as Matt Bai explained so well about Gary Hart, they told us something about character. Those were the old days. Now we know all about Donald Trump’s character, but we still don’t know all about the conspiracies to manipulate the 2016 election.
If only Trump had not run for president, his minions could have continued laundering Russian money, evading taxes, and paying hush money until he tweeted off this mortal coil.
Instead, he attracted the attention of every self-respecting law enforcement and intelligence officer in the nation’s capital and beyond. The downfall of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel began when he ran for office in Colombia, and the same might just prove to be true about the far smaller Trump enterprise.
Donald Trump has lost so much in court, he must be tired of losing. As a candidate he suggested his supporters would suffer some kind of headache from all of his endless winning. He imagined them saying “Please don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.” How right he was.