By Adam Cohen
Donald Trump was right.
There was substantial election fraud in 2016. Trouble is, it seems he was the one who committed it.
In an unprecedented debacle of a day in presidential history, on Tuesday Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, was convicted on eight counts of financial crimes. A few scant moments later, Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, plead guilty to eight criminal charges, including two where he directly implicated the president in felony violations of campaign laws. According to Cohen, Trump was directly involved in arranging hush money payments to women, including porn stars, with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs, and he did this to affect the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Yes, President Donald Trump is now officially an unindicted co-conspirator. Moreover Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, then suggested that Cohen may have information about Trump committing crimes involving collusion with the Russian government to secure the presidency.
And what effect did all this have on Trump’s behavior? Very little. The next morning the president took to twitter and attacked Cohen while praising Manafort. He even stated that Cohen “plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime.” I suspect such “legal” analysis would not be very convincing to either Cohen or Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And of course, he once again called this investigation, which has already either directly or indirectly netted SEVEN criminal convictions, a “witch hunt.” This doesn’t even include the indictments of sitting Congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter. They were Trump’s first two supporters on the Hill. It seems there are a lot of witches in Washington these days.
But the larger question is where this leaves our country. Trump has been directly connected with these two grave misdeeds, whether he believes the conduct is illegal or not, and there has been rampant suggestion that he is involved in many more.
The hacks into the Clinton campaign and distribution of the emails. The infamous meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower and the subsequent cover ups and lies. Potential obstruction of justice over firing FBI Director James Comey and continually pressuring the Justice Department to end the Mueller investigation. If one “third-rate burglary” was enough to take down President Nixon, what are we to make of all these allegations against Trump? Especially when so much of his conduct is already public record; and while that is not dispositive, it sure seems to indicate that Trump committed multiple crimes.
In 1999, Senator Lindsay Graham, then a Congressman, argued passionately that a president could be removed from office even if he had not committed a crime. Of course, that was when impeachment proceedings were pending against Democratic President Bill Clinton. Graham is a Republican. Now that it’s a Republican president desperately treading water to avoid drowning in a cesspool of criminal activity, Graham demurs, citing a lack of charges involving collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And let us not forget, Clinton’s conduct, though sordid, tawdry and thoroughly improper, was not done with an intent to influence the election. All of Trump’s actions were performed to affect election results or cover up possible crimes involving the election.
It is not surprising that Graham changed his tune. After all, he was likely wrong in 1999, as the Constitution states that a president may be impeached if he commits “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes or Misdemeanors.” However, that seems to be beside the point for Graham, and most members of Congress. No, their issue isn’t one of Constitutional semantics. It’s instead the fact that Trump is on their team, and he’s their cleanup hitter. So while Graham called Trump a “kook” and said he was “not fit to be President” during the 2016 campaign, he now gives Trump a pass on conduct that was far worse than anything Bill Clinton imagined, and even praises him. Republican leaders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have done the same. Cruz even wrote a gushing tribute to Trump for Time Magazine.
If there were a Democratic majority in Congress, this attitude by influential GOP members wouldn’t mean very much. A Democratic Congress would likely do its job, fulfill its Constitutional mandate, act as the co-equal branch of the American government that it is and determine whether impeachment articles should now be drafted. Instead, we see the president arguing that he has the power to act as his own judge and shut this incredibly prolific investigation down, musing about pardoning potential witnesses against him, defaming members of the investigation team and openly questioning whether crime is crime while watching his spokesperson saying truth isn’t truth.
Since the GOP is in charge, however, we have this president – conceivably so steeped in Russian interference with our election that many suspect Vladimir Putin controls him – continuing to enact controversial and even downright immoral policies.
And Congress has not done much, if anything, to stop him. Worse, they may compound the problem by going forward with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, lest we forget, has questioned whether the Supreme Court decision in the Watergate case that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation was correctly decided; written that a president should not be subject to criminal investigations while in office; and argued that a president has the authority to fire a Special Counsel.
Will Congress allow a president, facing inquiries into whether he committed criminal conduct, to fire the man investigating him, and will they approve the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice hand-picked by that same president? Would they do it knowing that this Justice has previously written that the president has the power to discharge the team investigating his misconduct and still avoid prosecution? Or do their pronouncements that “we are a nation of laws” really mean “the laws don’t apply to everybody, and we get to pick and choose who has to follow them and who doesn’t”? During the Obama presidency, while successfully blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, Ted Cruz cited historical precedent of the Supreme Court hearing cases with only eight members to justify this shameful Senate inaction. Will he apply that standard now, when the appointment is made by a president swaddled in scandal, or will he be cheering his team on as they denude democracy?
Looming gigantically over the both the president and Congress is the potentially game-changing question of whether Michael Cohen will cooperate with Mueller. Cohen was employed by the Trump organization for over a decade. Trump described Cohen as “my personal lawyer.” Cohen was involved in numerous real estate deals, including the putative transaction for Trump Tower Moscow. We can only imagine what he might know about Trump’s dealings with Russian nationals and what might be in – or conveniently omitted from – Trump’s taxes. While Trump tried to deny he had any dealings with Russians, Reuters reported that they had invested $100 million in Trump properties and Donald Trump Jr. admitted in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” These could all be legitimate business transactions, but there’s so much smoke swirling around Trump and Russia, and he’s lied so frequently, that’s it’s almost impossible to grant him the presumption of innocence. As Shakespeare wrote, the truth will out; when it does, those in power will make their judgments. Hopefully the umps won’t be swayed by any hometown crowds. But it gets harder each day to imagine a Republican majority doing anything other than avoiding the press and occasionally clucking their tongues while failing to reign in a president who would be king.
Finally (and doesn’t it seem that this always comes last) there is the question of how this will affect the populace. There are national elections in 2018 and 2020. The people will have a chance to make their voice heard. Does any of this make an impression upon them? Do people care about the rank corruption that seems to permeate throughout the newly-formed Trump GOP? His supporters don’t seem to mind. They keep electing his acolytes in primaries, regardless of whether they represent failed policies as in Kansas, brandish firearms at people as in Georgia, or pal around with far right conspiracy theorists as in Arizona. Polling suggests that Democrats will capture the House but not the Senate. Will Kavanaugh then get through? Will that grant Trump his “get out of jail free” card?
Or, with or without Trump’s help, can Russia actually rig our elections? If they can, which party will they favor? Because creating a Congress divided sharply along party lines might help them more than full Republican control.
Donald Trump famously pledged to “drain the swamp.” Instead, he packed it with rats, mined it for natural gas, erected an oil rig and set it on fire. And, much like the havoc such a disaster would wreak on the environment, our political climate will invariably be harmed.