Honoring the long tradition of Republican criminals in and around the executive branch, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted Tuesday on eight counts of financial fraud. At almost the exact same moment, Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes — one of which he testified was committed at Trump's direct instruction. They join former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI) and former campaign aide George Papadopoulos (same) in the roster of proven Trump criminal associates.
People tend to be resigned to the idea that Republicans will do absolutely nothing about this. But it's worth remembering that if the Constitution was functioning as intended, Trump would be impeached immediately. This is a crisis undermining the basic legitimacy of the American state.
The Manafort convictions are about crimes he did before joining the Trump campaign, but this is just the first of his trials. He still faces a possible retrial from 10 charges the jury couldn't agree on, plus at least one more trial over a slew of accused crimes.
But the Cohen guilty plea is the big one. He admitted to several counts of tax evasion — hiding over $4 million in income from the IRS — but also to three counts of lying to a financial institution, causing an illegal corporate campaign contribution, and making an illegally large campaign contribution himself.
These last three are about the infamous hush money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels to stop them from revealing alleged affairs they had with Trump. He admitted to lying about a home equity loan to arrange the $130,000 Daniels payout — or 48 times the legal personal limit of $2,700, making it an illegal contribution-in-kind. The other contribution charge was about arranging the McDougal payout with Trump's friends at the National Enquirer. Cohen testified in federal court that Trump directly instructed him to make the payments to avoid damage to his candidacy, and that he arranged both of them with the campaign.
If Trump were any average schlub, Cohen's testimony alone would be virtually certain to be enough to convict him for violating campaign law and conspiracy — and more evidence would surely be uncovered to bolster the case in any investigation. But Trump is the president, so naturally that raises serious political obstacles, as well as goofy theories that the president can't be prosecuted because Federalist Society argle-bargle.
However, the real solution for this emergency situation is impeachment. "What if the head of government turns out to be a criminal" is a possibility that is always a top concern among democratic constitutional architects, America's included. "A well constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective," wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65, going on in that essay and Federalist 66 to defend the constitutional impeachment process.
Like most of the rest of the Constitution, this procedure has turned out to be severely suboptimal. The parliamentary mechanism of a vote of no confidence to remove a crooked head of government from office (and away from the levers of power he might pull to protect himself), followed by an ordinary trial, is much more reliable and effective.
Nevertheless, impeachment is what we have, and it is absolutely beyond question that this is a situation for which it was intended. The president is virtually certainly a crook — and what's more, Cohen's testimony doesn't even touch Trump's wildly unconstitutional abuse of office to enrich himself and his family. Richard Nixon resigned over far less than this — conspiring to cover up a crime, not directly committing the crime himself (though by openly admitting to firing former FBI Director James Comey to stop the Russia investigation, Trump has almost certainly done that as well).
And yet, it is hard to imagine Republicans even allowing for a full investigation of Trump's various crimes, let alone actually fulfilling their constitutional duty.
What gives? Many political scientists have concluded that this is simply an outgrowth of party polarization. But this is questionable. Political parties in other countries have often turned on their own leadership when corruption became so obvious that it threatened their overall standing with the voters, or simply became too much to stomach morally. It seems likely that Republicans will lose their House majority over Trump's corruption, despite a decently strong economy. But there is no whisper of challenge to Trump.
The actual problem here is that the Republican base has been bingeing on partisan propaganda and conspiracy theories for so long they have come unglued en masse. A whole vast media empire has been built up over the decades to radicalize and fleece gullible elderly conservatives and build media profiles for cynical political operatives — something that has only accelerated during the Trump era. Indeed, absolutely fruitcake conspiracy theories, semi-deliberately designed by conservative grifters, have been produced at industrial scale during the past few years — witness the grubby, T-shirt-and-brain-pills-hawking backstory of the "Pizzagate" and "QAnon" scams.
All political partisans have blind spots or engage in motivated reasoning, Democrats very much included. But Republicans have taken this to world-historical heights of political insanity. Worse, as Alex Pareene writes, a great many elected Republican officials, including Trump himself, have become eager participants in conservative conspiracy culture.
The result is that the American constitutional structure is coming apart at the seams. The only solution I see is for Democrats to defeat the GOP in the next several elections, take power, then investigate and prosecute every white-collar criminal in sight, their own corrupt co-partisans very much included. Then, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) suggests with a sweeping new bill, they must institute vigorous new legal standards against corruption.
The survival of America depends on it.