Jimmy Buffett once wrote that there are good days and bad days and going half-mad days. For President Trump, August 21 will go down in history as one of the latter two options. Bad news supposedly comes in threes and Tuesday was no exception. The string of bad legal news for the president may make the day a defining moment in the midterm elections, if not the entire Trump Administration.
The worst news for the president was the revelation that his “fixer,” attorney Michael Cohen, had agreed to a plea deal. Cohen’s plea goes beyond damaging Mr. Trump through guilt-by-association since the counselor fingered his client, the “candidate,” as the person who directed him to make hush payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump. In other words, President Trump is directly implicated in illegal activity.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, admitted in May that Mr. Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the payments, but claimed that the president was unaware that the money had gone to buy the women’s silence. Cohen’s statement under oath is at odds with Giuliani’s version.
The second piece of bad luck was expected but will still sting. Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was found guilty on eight counts of tax fraud, bank fraud and hiding foreign bank accounts. Mr. Manafort faces up to 80 years in prison and still faces other charges as well, including a possible retrial on ten counts where the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Manafort’s conviction does not directly involve Donald Trump or the 2016 election, but it does involve Russia. Manafort worked for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin dictator of Ukraine, before he worked for Trump. Manafort was accused of hiding payments related to his Ukrainian work and faces additional charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.
The third piece of bad news was also somewhat of a surprise. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and his wife were indicted on charges of using $250,000 in campaign contributions to finance a lavish personal lifestyle. Rep. Hunter had been under investigation since 2017, but the timing of his indictment was unexpected. Hunter’s legal problems only involve President Trump in that they are both Republicans, but it will make the president’s life much more difficult over the next few months and beyond.
Hunter’s indictment comes only a few weeks after another Republican congressman, Chris Collins of New York, was indicted for insider trading and subsequently suspended his campaign. With the midterms rapidly approaching, the two indictments, along with Manafort’s conviction, paint a picture of Republican corruption that could have effects that reach much farther than the two congressional districts that are suddenly more vulnerable to Democratic challengers.
The day’s events leave President Trump to face two different but overlapping problems. First, is the direct legal threat to the Trump presidency from Michael Cohen’s testimony. Because the payments violated campaign finance laws, it is almost certain that Donald Trump will now be subpoenaed to testify under oath. Three presidents have been subpoenaed, but the power to subpoena a sitting president has never been tested in court. President Trump may break new legal ground if and when his subpoena comes, if he chooses to resist.
It is less clear whether a sitting president can be indicted. Justice Department guidelines say that the president can only be impeached, but there may be exceptions. Courts have never ruled on the question so any attempt to indict the president would likely face years of appeals. Either a subpoena or an indictment could spark a constitutional crisis.
The indirect threat to the president is that the seemingly endless parade of corruption may sway the midterm elections. Democrats are already enjoying advantages in fundraising and voter enthusiasm while Republicans must contend with a wave of retiring incumbents. As the headlines trumpet the legal problems of a growing list of Republicans, the party’s image will be tarnished for other candidates. Corruption is always bad, but especially for a party elected on promises to “drain the swamp.” Democrat control of one or both houses of Congress would create a crisis of a different sort.
If nothing else is certain, the events of August 21 did make one thing clear. Despite Mr. Trump’s fervent wishes and tweets, the investigations of his administration will not be going away anytime soon.
Originally published on The Resurgent