Well, well. Tuesday was certainly an interesting day.
Paul Manafort was convicted of tax fraud, and at almost the same time, Michael Cohen–aka Trump’s “fixer”–pled guilty to several counts of tax and bank fraud. Cohen’s plea implicated the President, as it included a confession that Cohen had made the hush money payments “at the direction of a federal candidate.”
The Manafort trial grew out of an investigation conducted by the Special Counsel, but the charges didn’t involve Trump. The conventional wisdom was that a conviction would give Mueller leverage to strike a deal–to get Manafort to flip. That remains to be seen, and of course, Manifort faces another trial, in another jurisdiction, in September.
At the very least, the conviction and guilty plea are evidence that–far from being a politically-motivated enterprise, as Trump has maintained, the investigation has focused on and uncovered significant and troubling illegal activities by the President’s close associates.
The media has been all over both stories, and the punditry is in overdrive. Vox had an explanation of “what it all means” in which it consulted several federal prosecutors and other legal experts; most of them said what anyone with a functioning brain already knew–this is more evidence that the Mueller investigation is anything but a “witch hunt,” these results aren’t good news for Trump, etc.
The one expert who genuinely added to my understanding of the various possibilities was Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent who is now a senior lecturer at Yale, who raised some fascinating points I’d not previously considered.
A potentially bigger threat to President Trump is what Cohen could provide to the Southern District of New York about potential crimes committed by Trump or members of his family that are unrelated to the Russia probe. Michael Cohen, as Trump’s longtime “fixer” knows where the proverbial bodies are buried when it comes to the Trump Organization and particularly its finances going back many, many years.
If Cohen provided information on potentially criminal activities to the Southern District and it opened an investigation into them, it would place the President in a double bind: First, since it would be an investigation separate and apart from the Mueller probe, he wouldn’t be able to argue that the Special Counsel exceeded his mandate or crossed a “red line” — after all, any U.S. Attorney’s office is legally authorized (and duty-bound) to investigate any violations of federal law it learns about.
More importantly, such an investigation would be completely insulated from any steps Trump might take to fire Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or even Attorney General Jeff Sessions (especially since his interim pick to head the Southern District who recused himself from overseeing the Cohen investigation, would undoubtedly recuse himself from any other Trump-related investigation as well). So Trump has much more to fear from Cohen than just what he knows about Russia-related matters.
America’s system of federalism has often been an impediment to justice. For a long time, “state’s rights” was a euphemism for “the right of our state to discriminate.” But there is something so satisfying about the prospect of New York State pursuing Donald Trump, charging him with violations of state criminal laws in a process that he is powerless to obstruct–violations his pardon power could not reach if he and/or his family are found guilty of them.
And let’s get real. The odds are high that Trump–who has been accused of numerous nefarious activities and who has surrounded himself with gangsters and thugs throughout his career–is guilty of a variety of criminal activities.
Right now, of course, the action is all at the federal level. A sense of expectation has been triggered by these proceedings–a hint that perhaps, just perhaps, the noose is tightening and the investigation is coming to a conclusion.
I’d say “pass the popcorn” but who knows what our demented President will do as that noose tightens? After all, he still has the nuclear codes…..