On Tuesday, President Trump's longtime personal lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen directly implicated him in a federal felony. Cohen said that, "in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office" — Trump — he paid off a porn actress and a former Playboy model to buy their silence about extramarital affairs they said they had with Trump in 2006, and he did it "for the principal purpose of influencing the election."
In other words, Trump, according to his own former lawyer, cheated to win the 2016 election. In this case, according to Cohen, Trump cheated by directing hush money to two women with whom he likely cheated on his third and current wife, Melania. It remains to be seen whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller can prove Trump cheated in other ways, like by working with Russia to disseminate and promote pilfered emails harmful to Hillary Clinton. At the very least, Trump and his new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, admit Trump's campaign tried to collude with Russia.
Cohen's guilty plea caused some shockwaves. "Let that sink in: Mr. Trump's own lawyer has now accused him, under oath, of committing a felony," The New York Times wrote in an editorial. "On Tuesday, the president of the United States was credibly accused in federal court of directing one of his subordinates to commit a federal crime," The Washington Post editorialists added, referring to Trump as the "alleged co-conspirator in the White House." Conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens even used the "i" word:
Is all this cheating really a big deal? We already knew — or should have known — Trump was a cheater. He lied and cheated to get on the Forbes 400 list, using deceit and alter-egos to inflate his wealth, according to the Forbes reporter who compiled the list. Legally he may not have cheated on his taxes, but he has publicly said that using tax loopholes to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years "makes me smart." Hundreds of contractors have accused him of cheating them out of money they earned doing work for him. He agreed to pay Trump University students $25 million because he'd cheated them out of their promised education. He is infamous for cheating at golf. And regardless of whether the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal affairs really happened, Trump publicly bragged about cheating on his first wife with his second wife. You can find more examples in this long list of Trump scandals from The Atlantic.
So how big a deal is it, really, if we get definitive proof that Trump broke campaign finance laws to cover up his infidelity? Or more to the point, who will care?
Democrats, obviously — but they care about every Trump infraction, real and merely alleged. Congressional Republicans? "We are aware of Mr. Cohen's guilty plea to these serious charges," said House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) office. "We will need more information than is currently available at this point."
Right-leaning media outlets? If Trump did order the payment to Stormy Daniels, The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote, "he exhibited awful political as well as ethical judgment. By October 2016, after the Billy Bush tape had come out, a years-old affair with a porn star would not have shocked voters." Cohen's guilty plea raised the stakes for Trump and his presidency, the Journal added, but before Congress moves to impeach, "voters may want to see more than evidence about payments to a porn star to overturn the results of a presidential election."
On Fox News, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz told Tucker Carlson that what Cohen is accusing Trump of doing "is technically, perhaps, a violation of the election laws," but such violations are "regarded as kind of jaywalking in the realm of things about elections," and "here, they're trying to elevate this to an impeachable offense or a felony against the president." (Gee, "the goalposts have been moved to a Pep Boys parking lot 35 miles outside the stadium," responded New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush.)
Perhaps the real question is whether Trump is as immune from the laws of fair play as his lawyers claim he is. Is there a significant political difference in Trump's America between cheating at golf and cheating to win an election? Are elections still something held sacred in America? Are we a nation of laws or a nation of men?
Or maybe the real question echoes the central imponderable of the Trump presidency: Does anything even matter anymore?