Are we at the tipping point yet, Daddy?

Michael Cohen (L), President Donald Trump's personal attorney, leaves following a hearing at United States Federal Court in New York, New York, USA, 21 August 2018. EPA-EFE/JASON SZENES

Regardless of what the poet TS Eliot said about April being the cruellest month, for American politicians at least, perhaps August is tougher. Richard Nixon resigned his office in August 1974, and Donald Trump has now been assailed by the results of not one, but two, court appearances that have caused real wounds to the legitimacy of his presidency.

Donald Trump probably should have taken that class in Greek theatre or mythology when he was first being a stable genius, back in the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, instead of that investment course on redlining properties or workarounds on rent control, he would have learned just a bit more about the tempting of fate, the teasing of the gods, and the pushing of hubris just one bit too far before retribution comes.

On Tuesday evening, 21 August 2018, Donald Trump had spoken (actually ranted, shouted, screamed, and bellowed) at a campaign rally for a Republican candidate for a senate seat now held by a rather conservative Democrat in West Virginia. In his speech, Trump got himself all wound up, whipping his ultra-partisan crowd to a lip-frothing frenzy, with his exhortations: “Collusion? Where’s the collusion? Show me the collusion?” Maybe the gods are sorting that out right about now.

Almost simultaneously with that red meat Trumpian oratory, almost as if the gods were delivering a pre-emptory rebuttal, two legal struggles played themselves out. And the results were definitely against the Trumpian interpretations of things. Those two outcomes were a smack across the Trumpian jowls – and with promise of yet more to come. In fact, Tuesday, 22 August has been the worst day in the Trumpian universe since the man lost control of his Atlantic City casino empire and became a financial and real estate developer outcast – untouchable to real banks unless they had dodgy Russian oligarchs’ money sloshing around inside their vaults, and with them desperate for a way to launder their stashes.

On Tuesday, in the first of the hammer blows, former presidential campaign chair Paul Manafort was found guilty by a federal court jury in Virginia on eight out of 18 counts. These were charges about modest things like rather spectacular income tax and banking fraud charges where his behaviour was in aid of, among other things, vast schemes to get lots of undeclared money from a Russian-leaning Ukrainian president to fund his ostentatious, extravagant, faintly ridiculous lifestyle (think ostrich skin and snake skin clothing, just for starters).

Meanwhile, in a concurrent New York negotiation with the FBI and then his allocution before a judge, breaking just moments after Manafort’s undoing, Michael Cohen, otherwise known as Trump’s fixer and personal lawyer for a decade, plead guilty to his own set of sleazy charges. These included using fake invoices to cover up Trump’s payments to Cohen (plus a tidy sweetener for himself) to pay off Trump tryst porn star Stormy Daniels and a former playboy bunny, just before the general election.

Aside from the banking and other violations such fakery involved, it also seems to have been a violation of campaign finance laws, inasmuch as such payments could easily be described as a sizeable, unreported, and illegal campaign contribution in Trump’s 2016 effort. The really new problem for Trump, now, is that Cohen said – and the paper and electronic trail confirmed – he did this task at the express request of an unnamed but obvious candidate for federal office. Oops.

Just like secret source “Deep Throat” Mark Felt had reportedly told Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, way back in 1973-4; or at least what actor Hal Holbrook had told fellow actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film All the President’s Men, “follow the money”, seems to be the key here as well.

In Manafort’s case, so far, the crimes he has been convicted of do not, in and of themselves, link directly with the presidential campaign. However, facing some really serious jail time, the pressure now mounts inexorably on Manafort to bargain lots of unsavoury stuff about any of those Russian connections to the campaign he may know of, such as meetings to gain access to surreptitiously obtained “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in exchange for a chance to breathe a bit of free air before he is an octogenarian. And Manafort is facing a second trial next month. Time to get that plea-bargaining documentation under way?

With Cohen, the lasso is much tighter. And more direct. Cohen obviously has intimate knowledge of, well, pretty much everything related to Trump’s life, finances and dealings with Russian investors. And with the mountain of evidence already amassed by the special prosecutor’s team, and the leads connecting to others already indicted or who have already copped pleas, the story special prosecutor Robert Mueller will be weaving into his final report may even point to the possibility of Donald Trump being indicted, post-presidency. (Whether he could be indicted during his presidency is the subject of a complex legal argument that seems to hang on whether such an event would distract too much from presidential duties, and thus national security.)

As Politico’s Playbook noted on Wednesday (all caps and all):

The split-screen guilty verdict of PAUL MANAFORT and MICHAEL COHEN’s plea is, perhaps, the best evidence that ROBERT MUELLER is treating this investigation like an old-school organised crime probe. While PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP turns on the noise machine every day – shouting about what he sees as bias – Mueller is using the criminal-justice system to take out the people closest to the president…

IMPEACHMENT, of course, is top of mind for everyone in the White House and on the Hill. But without knowing the full gamut of what Mueller has, it’s impossible to know how likely impeachment is. Republicans, thus far, have brushed off impeachment. But there will certainly be pressure from some corners for the GOP to act. REMEMBER… House Democrats have already introduced articles of impeachment for lesser misdeeds. We have to imagine they’ll try again.

THE PRESIDENT’S saving grace, politically at least, is that he can say at the moment that the special counsel has not proven collusion with the Russians – and that’s true. But yesterday did reinforce that while Mueller is not interested in a shouting match, he has been stunningly efficient in getting results.

TWO MEN who had direct access to the president – one person who was his closest aide for upward of a decade – might be going to prison. COHEN said, with little ambiguity, that Trump instructed him to make illegal campaign payments to bolster his political future. And MANAFORT was found guilty on eight charges – and still faces another trial in Washington on other serious charges.”

The political landscape, of course, is a bit different from the circumstances of the specific courtroom actions or plea bargaining. Actually, very different. Even if the president is not liable to be indicted for some version or another of a criminal conspiracy, there are the pressures that are growing on the various committees of Congress to step up and deal with the issues of presidential ethics and the Russian actions in the election. And, of course, there is that impending American midterm election – a third of the Senate, the full House of Representatives, and thousands of state and local officials.

With Republican control over the Senate dependent on holding their slender two-seat margin, and Republican control of the House dependent on not losing 23 seats out of the total of 435, some Republicans are probably recalibrating the strength of their unwavering support for Trump – if that support means losing one or both Houses of Congress. If that happens, there will be subpoenaed demand after demand on the White House for further, potentially damaging, information; unrelenting investigation after investigation; and – potentially – defection after defection and conviction after conviction from within the Trump presidency itself.

If that path opens, a third act in the Greek drama of the Trump presidency just may be at hand. Now if the economy softens, as Republicans head into that midterm period and afterwards, watch out for potentially very stormy weather, dead ahead. DM


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