The pain – and comfort – in Trump associates’ convictions

Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump acknowledges supporters during a rally at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va., Aug. 21. Hours earlier, the president's former campaign chairman was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges, and his former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to crimes including tax evasion and campaign finance violations.

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There’s no doubt that Aug. 21, 2018, will go down in history as an extraordinary moment in the Trump presidency – and for the American presidency, an office steeped in dignity and tradition but hardly immune to the foibles of its occupants, as many past presidents have shown. President Trump stands tarnished by the conviction Tuesday of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the plea deal announced within the same hour by Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; both men, guilty of financial misdeeds, face prison. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance violation Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to. Still, it’s not hard to see Trump’s supporters sticking by him. Trump has given them the mental road map: The investigation that ensnared Mr. Manafort is part of the larger “witch hunt” aimed at the president, and Manafort’s fraudulent activity took place long before he joined the Trump campaign, the president says. For Americans disturbed by these legal developments, there’s more than one way to react. “It’s depressing that this president has surrounded himself with such rogues,” says Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University in Montreal. “But we’re also seeing that the system works.”

Why We Wrote This

The conviction and plea deal of close Trump associates Tuesday sent heads spinning. But a presidential scholar points to the results as evidence that “the system works, and is built on the rule of law.”

Even now, anybody who bets against President Trump is probably foolish.

Recall then-candidate Trump’s words in January 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

That assessment of his supporters’ loyalty proved prophetic. Mr. Trump won the presidency, even after the infamous election-eve tape of him bragging crudely about grabbing women. Today, Trump stands tarnished by the conviction Tuesday of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the plea deal announced within the same hour by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; both men, guilty of financial misdeeds, face prison. In the latter case, both Trump and his company were implicated in the campaign finance violation Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to.  

Why We Wrote This

The conviction and plea deal of close Trump associates Tuesday sent heads spinning. But a presidential scholar points to the results as evidence that “the system works, and is built on the rule of law.”

For Americans disturbed by what these legal developments say about Trump, there’s more than one way to react.

“It’s depressing that this president has surrounded himself with such rogues,” says Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University in Montreal. “But we’re also seeing that the system works, and is built on the rule of law and checks and balances. The courts have tremendous power, as does Congress.”

As a political question, it’s not hard to see how Trump supporters stick by him. Trump himself has given them the mental road map: The investigation that ensnared Mr. Manafort is part of the larger “witch hunt” aimed at the president, and besides, Manafort’s fraudulent activity took place long before he joined the Trump campaign, the president says.

And, as Trump tweets with increasing frequency, the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller has so far failed to show “collusion” between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign. Though the investigation is ongoing, and the extent of the information that Mr. Mueller has amassed and may still get is unknown.

Still, there’s no doubt that Aug. 21, 2018, will go down in history as an extraordinary moment in the Trump presidency – and for the American presidency, an office steeped in dignity and tradition but hardly immune to the foibles of its occupants, as many past presidents have shown.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Michael Cohen leaves court, Aug. 21, 2018, in New York. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance violations stemming from hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

For Trump, who brought to office a unique background in real estate and television – and no prior experience in politics, government, or the military – the presidency has been a constant process of discovery.

“When you’re running a [privately held] real estate empire, you do have tremendous latitude and the prerogatives of a king,” says Mr. Troy. “But the minute you take the oath of office, and you’re sitting in the Oval Office,... you’re part of a system that’s very resilient and has all kinds of ways of keeping you in line.”

And yet Trump has shown, regularly, that the norms and customs of the office are expendable, and that the president in fact has wide latitude under the US Constitution to wield executive power.

One day after the Manafort-Cohen bombshells, Republicans on Capitol Hill were already working to slow down the frenzied speculation about what might come next. Will Trump pardon either of his convicted former aides? Will calls for impeachment, popular only on the Democratic fringe in Congress, ramp up ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections?

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, echoed Trump in saying that “nothing we heard yesterday has anything to do with Russia or the reason why director Mueller was appointed special counsel.”

Senator Cornyn also defended Trump when asked about Cohen’s implication of the president in a crime over payments Cohen made to women, at Trump’s direction, to keep them quiet over alleged past sexual relationships with Trump. Cohen, he said, is someone whose “credibility is in tatters, because he’s basically been all over the map as to what his story is.”

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday on NBC that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump, and didn’t expect one “from somebody who has acted so corruptly as president.” The statement was bracing, as Cohen had once said he would take a bullet for Trump.

As for Trump’s legal exposure in the Cohen case or anything that may come out of the Mueller probe, it is longstanding Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller is expected to write a report on the findings of his investigation, and then it’s up to the House to decide whether to launch impeachment proceedings. A majority of the House is required to impeach a president.

And so, at heart, the Mueller investigation points to a political outcome. That’s why Trump’s job approval rating is so important. As long as GOP voters stick by him, so will Republicans in Congress. For now, most Democrats in Congress are holding back on impeachment. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that impeaching Trump is “not a priority.”

In the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to oust an impeached president, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts said Wednesday on CNN that the priority now should be to avoid a constitutional crisis and shield Mueller.

“Protect Robert Mueller, let him finish his investigation, let him make a full and fair report to all of the American people,” Senator Warren said. “And when we’ve got that, then we can make a decision on what the appropriate next step is.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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