When it rains, it pours.
For the historical record, let it be noted that the following events took place within about five minutes of each other on the afternoon of August 21 in the strange year 2018:
Paul Manafort, former campaign manager to the sitting president of the United States, was convicted by a jury of his peers on eight counts of bank and tax fraud. He faces 8 to 10 years in prison according to the guidelines but could be imprisoned for as many as 65 years if the judge sentences him consecutively. He faces even heavier charges in a trial next month over his dealings in Russia and Ukraine.
At almost precisely the same moment, Michael Cohen, former personal attorney and “fixer” for the sitting president of the United States, stood before a judge and pleaded guilty to eight counts: one count of making a false statement to a bank, five counts of tax evasion and two violations of campaign finance law. He faces as much as five years in prison according to the plea he struck with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The latter two counts, according to Cohen’s sworn statement, involved illegal payoffs to two women for the express purpose of affecting the outcome of the 2016 election, and were done at the specific request of Donald Trump. If true, Cohen has directly implicated his former client in a pair of black-letter felonies. If the outcome of the last presidential election was questionable before, it is now tainted beyond repair.
From the courthouse steps, Cohen attorney Lanny Davis said of his client, “Today he 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?”
This isn’t Michael Cohen or his legal team popping off on Twitter or vomiting Giuliani-style nonsense on the floor of some network studio. As Davis noted, this was sworn testimony implicating Donald Trump in at least one federal crime. Worse for Trump, it was sworn testimony backed by evidence. Cohen has tape of Trump and him discussing the payoff that led to count seven of the plea deal: $150,000 paid on the eve of the election to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal, with whom Trump had an affair while still married to his third wife, Melania.
By Tuesday evening, the screws had gotten so tight the beams were beginning to squeak. Davis was on television dangling his client before special counsel Robert Mueller as if he were baiting a cat with a morsel of tuna. On MSNBC, he told Rachel Maddow that Mueller “will have a great deal of interest in what Michael has to say” about the “computer crime of hacking” and “whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.”
How this will all ultimately play out is anyone’s guess. Paul Manafort could choose to cut a deal with Mueller rather than face a second trial, making himself a potentially potent witness against Trump on the issues of Russian collusion and obstruction of justice. On the other hand, Manafort could choose to gut it out and face the second trial, though no one seems to know where he would get the money to pay for what has already been an incredibly expensive defense.
The final fate of Michael Cohen is far more interesting. He did a decade’s worth of dirt for Donald Trump and maybe tape-recorded all of it. Certainly he had a talent for covering his own posterior with evidence of other people’s crimes in case a day like Tuesday should happen to come along. The five years he is facing could be pared down significantly if there is any merit to Cohen’s “computer hacking/Trump knew” rainy-day fund Lanny Davis is peddling to the special counsel’s office.
Hanging over it all, of course, is the real possibility of a presidential pardon for either or both men. Donald Trump can certainly do it; presidential pardon powers are vast. It would not be easy, however. Pardoning Manafort and Cohen would be prima facie evidence of obstruction, and would almost certainly buttress what already appears to be a meticulously-compiled case by Robert Mueller.
Lanny Davis has already made it clear where his client stands, stating bluntly that he would not accept a pardon. “I know that Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from a man that he considers to be both corrupt and a dangerous person in the oval office,” Davis told NPR. A bracing line, until you remember that Cohen is also the man who famously announced he would “take a bullet” for Trump, further underscoring that the only heroes in this are the people who cleaned up the courtrooms after the spectators departed.
Pardoned or otherwise, Manafort and Cohen are going to haunt this administration until its final day.
… which brings us to the topic of impeachment. The Number One parlor game being played in the nation’s capital today is called “Will All This Finally Be Enough To End Trump’s Stranglehold On Congressional Republicans?” The answer, in all likelihood and at least in the near term, is no. They are too deeply invested, November is too close, and the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination looms over it all. For good or ill, the midterms are now going to be about impeachment … and if the Democrats carry the day as expected, it’s hats over the windmill come January.
All this could certainly change if Manafort and Cohen are pardoned before November. Such an act would bring about a political firestorm the likes of which have not been seen since the British burned down the White House in 1814. At that point, all bets are off. When the smoke clears and the presidential line of succession runs out of unindicted officers, the assistant to the assistant to the chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission could wind up sitting in the Oval Office wondering what the hell just happened.
Well, maybe not quite that bad. Bad, though. Incredibly, astonishingly bad. This is what happens when a scumbag hires scumbags and then becomes president. Donald Trump’s lifelong habit of working with and empowering moral sinkholes is finally coming back to eat his lunch. Put another way, this is what happens when you run a campaign, and then a country, like a business. Everyone is only out for themselves, and the rats all brought life vests and recording devices.
If you happened to hear moans and shrieks emanating Tuesday night from the general direction of Washington, DC, yeah, that was probably the president. The only good thing Trump can say about Tuesday was that he was not, in fact, devoured by wolves. Beyond that, there is only the sound of hounds sniffing their inexorable way toward his lair. His life is going to get unpleasantly and uniquely weird from here on out. Someone should warn the Twitter people to stock up on Red Bull and Tums for the foreseeable.
There is an ethereal quality that comes with the day after a day like no other. Imagine the Saturday Night Massacre combined with the best Christmas morning of all time and you have August 21 encapsulated. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he just stuffed a crooked lobbyist and a shady Manhattan lawyer in your sock.
That makes five close Trump associates now in there — the lobbyist, the lawyer, the former national security adviser, the former campaign adviser and the former deputy campaign chairman — plus a whole pile of Russians, with plenty of room for more. All that in less than two years, and two in one afternoon. Donald Trump sees himself as a maker and breaker of history. Mission accomplished.