Trump’s mounting legal jeopardy
President Trump was directly implicated in campaign finance crimes this week, as his former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in jail after pleading guilty to arranging secret payments to two of the president’s former lovers. A sentencing memo from federal prosecutors in New York directly implicated Trump, saying that Cohen tried to buy the silence of a porn star and a Playboy model to influence the election “in coordination with and at the direction of” the president, identified in the filings as “Individual 1.” Deepening Trump’s legal jeopardy, American Media International, the parent company of the National Enquirer, also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the investigation. The company admitted that it made a $150,000 payment to buy the silence of former Playboy model Karen McDougal “in concert” with Trump’s campaign “so as to prevent [her story] from influencing the election.”
A separate sentencing memo from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office revealed new details about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. Cohen, who also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s attempts to build a luxury skyscraper in Moscow deep into the campaign, has provided “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation,” Mueller’s team said. “It was my blind loyalty to this man that led me to take a path of darkness instead of light,” Cohen said of Trump at his sentencing. “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
Trump dismissed the recent court actions, tweeting that Mueller’s team has found “no smocking [sic] gun” proving that he colluded with the Russians to win the election. In private, however, Trump has reportedly expressed concern that House Democrats may impeach him in 2019, with one official describing the past week’s news as a “reality tremor.” Nevertheless, Trump told Reuters that he’s not afraid of impeachment. “I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” Trump said.
What the editorials said
If this is a “witch hunt” as President Trump claims, said the San Francisco Chronicle, “it’s the most productive sorcery crackdown this side of Salem.” Despite Trump’s best efforts to impede and discredit the ongoing investigations, federal prosecutors keep turning up more and more evidence “of serious crimes in his inner circle drawing ever closer to the president himself.” No wonder Trump sounds “increasingly frantic.”
None of what we just revealed is “earth shaking,” said The Wall Street Journal. Yes, the Russians tried to insinuate themselves into the Trump campaign, but as far as we know so far, nothing ever came of it. The Moscow tower deal that Cohen worked on, for example, was quietly shelved. As for the porn star payoffs influencing the election, “any sentient voter knew that Trump had a bad history with women.” Mueller hasn’t proved anything that resembles actual collusion. “Lying about sex and paying to cover it up are wrong, but they’re a long way from collaborating with the Kremlin to beat Mrs. Clinton.”
What the columnists said
“If Trump weren’t president, he probably would have been indicted by now,” said Max Boot in The Washington Post. The president’s own Justice Department just implicated him in campaign finance crimes for which Trump’s lawyer is going to prison. But that’s just “one tiny molecule of the titanic iceberg now bearing down on the SS Trump.” We now know that at least 14 Trump associates interacted with Russian intermediaries during the campaign—contacts that Trump and his team have brazenly lied about. “Imagine if voters had known that Trump was pursuing a development deal in Moscow even as he was locking up the Republican nomination,” or that Trump’s “consigliere” Roger Stone knew in advance about the release of Democratic documents stolen by Russian hackers.
In a weird way, Democrats are also in a pickle, said Jonathan Last in WeeklyStandard.com. Polls show that 77 percent of Democrats already want the president impeached. But party leaders understand that, with Senate Republicans unlikely to turn on Trump under any circumstances, impeaching him for anything less than outright collusion is “at best risky and at worst suicidal.” But if Mueller does present concrete evidence of more serious crimes, Democrats might not have a choice. Not impeaching a president who has committed crimes would mean that “impeachment would essentially disappear as a functioning part of the Constitution.”
The 2020 election just became even more important, said Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times. Justice Department guidelines prevent the indictment of a sitting president. But Trump could easily be charged with crimes the day he leaves office, leaving him with no choice but to triumph in the 2020 election or face the possibility of going to prison. “There’s simply no way around it—as long as Individual 1 is on the ticket, the 2020 election is set to be a banana republic–style death match.”
“Reporters and commentators have begun saying Mueller’s probe is reaching its final stages,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. But that’s mere speculation, and it may not be true. The special counsel’s recent court filings indicate multiple investigations are still underway. Trump’s business flirtations with the Russians stretch all the way back to 1987, and after he went bankrupt, he grew “increasingly reliant on Russian investment.” It could take a long time to unravel a conspiracy that stretched back this far, with dozens of players. In the meantime, “the White House is adopting what one official termed a ‘shrugged shoulders’ strategy,” said Robert Costa and Philip Rucker in The Washington Post. The bet is that the Republican base will stick with the president no matter what, meaning there are no plans for a crisis “war room” like that created during previous presidencies. “A war room? You serious?” one former White House official said. “They don’t know how to do one.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
The faces of 2018: Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, activist Emma González, first lady Melania Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller, Michael Cohen, Prime Minister Theresa May, Mark Zuckerberg