Friday, December 6, 2018, will mark the day that Donald Trump, aka “Individual-1,” was officially implicated as a criminal felon by American law enforcement. As our own Martin Longman noted, the crimes themselves weren’t of the highest order–not yet anyway. But they were still felonies.
In short, the Department of Justice, speaking through the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is alleging that the president of the United States coordinated and directed a surrogate to commit a campaign finance violation punishable with time in prison. While the filing does not specify that the president “knowingly and willfully” violated the law, as is required by the statute, this is the first time that the government has alleged in its own voice that President Trump is personally involved in what it considers to be federal offenses.
And it does not hold back in describing the magnitude of those offenses. The memo states that Cohen’s actions, “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.” His sentence “should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.”
Keep in mind that it’s not just the crime involved. There’s the political angle in terms of the salaciousness of the crime: we’re talking about a nominee for president of the United States paying hush money to a pornographic actress with whom he had an affair, so that the scandal wouldn’t jeopardize his presidential campaign. That’s dime novel villain stuff.
And then there’s the Manafort business:
In a second blow to the president, on Friday prosecutors also disclosed a list of false statements that Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, allegedly made to federal investigators in breach of the cooperation agreement he entered into following his conviction for financial fraud and subsequent guilty plea to criminal conspiracy.
Some of the lies that the special counsel spells out in the redacted memorandum appear to implicate the president and those close to him in possible collusion and obstruction crimes. Notably, Mr. Manafort is accused of lying to the special counsel regarding his contacts with the Trump administration.
We don’t know the content of those contacts, but considering public statements about potential pardons, it is not hard to imagine they could implicate the president and others in a conspiracy to obstruct justice or witness tampering if, for example, they suggested a potential pardon if Mr. Manafort protected the president.
It’s important to recall the breathtaking scope of Trump’s alleged crimes. As of now, neither of the alleged crimes revealed Friday night involve Trump with: direct collusion with Russia; quid pro quo agreements involving sanctions, tax fraud, graft, emoluments, and bribes; lying to investigators; or even direct obstruction of justice involving firings and such. So far, this is just the (failed) porn-star payoff and the (failed) inducements to keep Manafort quiet.
There is much more to come. We’re barely getting started, but things are already looking very bad for “Individual-1.”
The big question, of course, is whether the full weight of the revealed alleged crimes will lead even Republicans to act. That’s still quite unclear, and I tend to be a bit more pessimistic about that than my colleague Martin.
As much as the entire GOP and the conservative media establishment have been preparing to brazen out the Mueller report and excuse away Trump’s transgressions and call it all a witch hunt, one gets the sense that even they may have a breaking point. It’s one thing to just imagine ignoring a festering pile of garbage next to you and soldiering on regardless; it’s quite another thing to actually do it when the stench comes wafting in. There have been signs, for instance, that Fox News may be cagily stepping back from Trump so as not to get sucked into the vortex with him.
The problem for the GOP is that they are now inseparably tied to Donald Trump. There is no other unifying standardbearer waiting in the wings. In the 1990s, if Bill Clinton had gone down in flames, Democrats would have treated it as a personal failure and, after some adjustment, rallied fairly happily around Al Gore. The same could not reasonably be said now for Republicans and Mike Pence. The GOP base identifies deeply and personally with Trump in a way that will make it difficult for Republicans to move forward without him, especially if he collapses in disgrace. So they’re stuck, in other words, between a rock and hard place.
But they can’t say they didn’t see it coming. Trump’s disrespect for ethics and common decency has been obvious since the moment he rode down that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to announce his candidacy.