At around 4.30 pm, in courtrooms 200 miles apart, a pair of Trump associates delivered a one-two punch – and that was just Tuesday. Donald Trump’s presidency, it has been widely observed, bends the laws of time. Scandals that would have dogged other presidents for years tend to be here today, gone tomorrow. Fifteen minutes of fame is now likely to count for no more than 15 seconds. But even by the standards of the Trump universe, this week has been a blur. And at its heart was a single, devastating hour on Tuesday 21 August that effectively turned the president of the United States into an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal crime.
President Trump’s wall of secrecy — the work of a lifetime — is starting to crack. His longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty last week to breaking campaign-finance laws and said he had arranged hush-money payments to two women at Trump’s direction. A tabloid executive — who had served Trump by snuffing out damaging tales before they went public — and Trump’s chief financial officer gave testimony in the case. All three had been part of the small circle of family, longtime aides and trusted associates who have long played crucial roles in Trump’s strategy to shield the details of his personal life and business dealings from prying outsiders. But, as their cooperation with prosecutors shows, a growing number of legal challenges — including the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and a raft of lawsuits and state-level probes in New York — is eroding that barrier.
The result has been a moment in which Trump seems politically wounded, as friends turn and embarrassing revelations about alleged affairs and his charity trickle out, uncontained. In coming months, certain cases could force Trump’s company to open its books about foreign government customers or compel the president to testify about his relationships with women. “The myth of Trump is now unraveling,” said Barbara Res, a Trump Organization executive from 1978 to 1996. “He’s becoming more obvious, and people are starting to know what he’s like and what he’s doing.”
Before this year, any explanation of Trump’s secrecy would have begun with Cohen, a lawyer who threatened reporters with lawsuits for writing about Trump. Before last week, it would have begun with Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer. If Cohen was the outside man, Weisselberg has been the insider: a functionary whom Trump trusted to handle his company’s bills and his charity’s donations. Weisselberg started out working for Trump’s father, decades before. “They are the same family,” Weisselberg and the Trumps, said one person close to the Trump Organization. “I think Allen has earned that. He’s been around a long time, and he’s part of the family.”
The nation heard this week accusations that Donald Trump was personally involved in the decision to offer two women money shortly before the 2016 election to keep them from sharing stories of alleged affairs. Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, admitted under oath to having been instructed by Trump to work with David Pecker, chairman and chief executive of American Media Inc., to arrange a payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He also admitted to having been instructed by Trump to pay off adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Both payments involved felony violations of campaign finance law. That revelation is remarkable in its own right. But it is also worth remembering it becomes the third allegation of an effort to surreptitiously aid Trump’s 2016 campaign that violated the law.
We also do not yet have a full picture of two other key points of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. There is the infamous meeting at Trump Tower in early June 2016, of course, as well as a meeting about two weeks earlier between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian named Alexander Torshin. Torshin was a gun enthusiast who worked closely with alleged spy Maria Butina. Torshin and Trump Jr. met briefly at a dinner associated with the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Kentucky in May 2016. When considering the chain of events as described above, the question is not whether laws were broken in an attempt to aid Trump’s candidacy. It is evident from Cohen’s testimony and the existence of the hacked materials that they were. The question is whether those acts made the difference in the narrowly decided contest. That question is almost impossible to answer. It was just fewer than 78,000 votes that gave Trump the presidency, 0.06 percent of the votes cast. But those 78,000 votes were in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and it is not clear that any of the three acts outlined definitively shifted enough votes to propel that margin for Trump. What became more clear this week is Trump’s campaign was aided by many more surreptitious acts violating federal law than we realized — and President Trump himself is now clearly implicated in aiding at least one.
Those things and so much more Trump said in that Fox News interview bring me back to my rule of thumb: If you’re still viewing Trump through a presidential prism, you’re bound to be disappointed. He is not driven by the norms and customs revered and jealously guarded by most of his predecessors (cough, Nixon). No, the Queens-born builder is driven by a noxious mix of ambition, aggrievement, egomania and a strong sense of mafia ethics. A president wouldn’t fire the FBI director over an investigation of his election campaign. But a mob boss would. A president wouldn’t belittle his attorney general and bemoan his lack of loyalty. But a mob boss would. A president wouldn’t strip national security clearances from his critics. But a mob boss would. A president would not surround himself with grifters and other
characters who have no business being in the White House. But a mob boss couldn’t have it any other way. Trump even gave West Wing jobs to his daughter and son-in-law, who has his own real estate empire to worry about. You’ve seen the “Godfather” movies. A loyalty-dependent mob boss must have family close by.
A former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have information about an alleged affair of President Trump’s that he said resulted in a child is now reportedly free to speak about a deal with the National Enquirer publisher that silenced him. An attorney for Dino Sajudin, who was employed as a doorman at Trump World Tower, told CNN that his client was “recently” released from his contract with American Media Inc. (AMI). Sajudin had entered what’s known as a “catch-and-kill” agreement with the publisher in 2015. “Just recently, AMI released Mr. Sajudin from the terms of his agreement and he is now able to speak about his personal experience with them, as well as his story, which is now known to be one of the ‘catch and kill’ pieces,” the attorney, Marc Held, told CNN. “Mr. Sajudin hopes the truth will come out in the very near future.” Sajudin claimed to have knowledge of an affair between Trump and an ex-housekeeper, which he said resulted in a child. The story about his claims and the contract was reported by The Associated Press earlier this year.
President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen says the president ordered him to violate federal campaign finance laws during the 2016 election. As bad as that news is for Trump, the president faces an even more immediate legal peril: Even from the publicly available information, it’s now clear that Trump obstructed justice. Robert Mueller’s team is surely reaching the same conclusion, which means it is highly likely that Mueller will refer an obstruction case to Congress for further action. He could also seek to indict co-conspirators, and he could name the president himself in an indictment. No wonder Trump has resisted an interview with the special counsel. It’s even less likely to happen after Cohen’s plea — not to mention the virtually simultaneous conviction of Paul Manafort won by Mueller and his team Tuesday afternoon.
There is, of course, a difference between the public record and what Mueller and his colleagues have uncovered in their investigation. Most likely, they have much more information, and Cohen’s lawyer has suggested that he also has things to say about alleged collusion by Trump and his campaign with Russia. But even without subpoena power, it’s easy to discern significant evidence supporting the elements of obstruction of justice — an obstructive act undertaken with corrupt intent and having a connection to a grand jury or congressional proceeding. Public reports, open court testimony and our near-century of collective criminal law experience allow us to forecast what the Mueller report is likely to contain.
Prosecutors and legal experts point to several
episodes in the Trump obstruction case that could show corrupt intent: the meeting with Comey about Flynn, the firing of Comey, the construction of rationales for firing Comey, Trump’s pressure on Sessions to retake control of the investigation, Trump’s attempts to block legislation that would have protected Mueller, Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller, and Trump’s use of pardons to signal that he would protect witnesses who protected him. McGahn was directly involved in nearly every one of these episodes. He’s the guy who told Trump in January 2017 that Flynn had misled the FBI about back-channel talks with Russia—which means that Trump, when he later asked Comey not to pursue Flynn, knew he was tampering with an investigation. He’s the guy who lobbied Sessions, on Trump’s orders, not to recuse himself. He’s the one who gave Trump the bad news that Mueller was being appointed—and who then watched as Trump, in a White House meeting, exploded at Sessions for failing to protect him. He’s the guy Trump repeatedly told to fire Mueller. McGahn also edited the letter in which Trump explained why he was firing Comey. And he was Trump’s conduit for issuing pardons. Mueller is keenly interested in these episodes. We know this because Trump’s lawyers reported as much in their memo earlier this year. “In our conversation of January 8, your office identified the following topics as areas you desired to address with the President,” the memo begins. Then it lists 16 subjects. Ten of them are obstruction-related, including Trump’s meeting with Comey, Trump’s reactions to learning of the FBI’s Russia investigation, Trump’s reaction to Sessions’ recusal, Trump’s conversations with other intelligence officials, Trump’s reasons for firing Comey, Trump’s comments after firing Comey, and Trump’s reactions to Mueller’s appointment.
We are entering the most dangerous phase of Donald Trump’s presidency. We always knew this would happen — that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist — but we had no idea how it would specifically play out. Now we see the lay of the land a little more clearly. Four Trump campaign officials and his longtime lawyer and fixer have now pleaded to or been convicted of felonies; Trump’s now-convicted campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, faces another trial shortly; his media fixer, David Pecker, is now cooperating with authorities, and has, The Wall Street Journal reported, been granted immunity; Trump’s White House counsel talked to the special counsel’s office for 30 hours, without Trump’s knowledge, and, according to the New York Times, because he feared Trump might try to make him a fall guy for obstruction of justice; and his chief fixer for years, Michael Cohen, has every interest in telling law enforcement everything he knows about Trump’s past mafia boss–style behavior.
What we’re about to find out is if Trump can pull off all his usual tricks, and face no serious political or legal consequences for this. I’d say that question remains nerve-rackingly open. Perhaps the most significant fact of the last week was that the Department of Justice believed Michael Cohen when he told them that the president of the United States directed him to commit a federal crime. We have therefore, in the view of the DOJ, a criminal president. That’s where we’ve always been with Trump, of course, going right back to his enmeshment with shady Russian financing in New York City, Florida, and Moscow. (There’s a reason Trump has not relinquished his tax returns.) But the criminality has now become text rather than subtext. And what Cohen and Manafort and Pecker know about Trump must be tempting the president to break his famous sobriety. And how has Trump responded to these developments? Not well. We are told by observers of the royal court that he has raged and vented and snapped at staff.
Who else, by the way, do you know has spent four decades of his life “watching” the intricacies of mob round-ups? Yes, I know Trump made his fortune in part through the mob. They were regulars at his Taj Mahal casino, which was found to have “willfully violated” the money-laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was the subject of four separate IRS investigations for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then an industry record for the largest money-laundering fine. The Russian mob was critical to buying his real estate in secret as well. This is a president who has surrounded himself with criminals, especially Russian criminals, for decades. But still: the man who took an oath to enforce the laws of the land is openly touting the logic of mobsters in their battle with law enforcement. Before this presidency, that would have been inconceivable.
Fox News continues its extremely reckless habit of backing Trump’s assaults on the DOJ, the FBI, and Robert Mueller specifically. A view is emerging among the Republican base that much of law enforcement is rigged against them and in favor of the “elite globalists” who dominate “the swamp.” Even though both the DOJ and FBI are run by rock-ribbed Republicans — Mueller has always been one — they are shills for the opposition. “This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement, that’s what’s happening right now,” Duncan Hunter, just indicted for corruption on 60 counts, including wire fraud and campaign finance violations, insisted this week. “It’s happening with Trump, and it’s happening with me.” It’s worth noting too how the Trump cult might also be spreading to jurors. A single one held out in the Manafort trial on ten charges, for what another Trump-supporting juror has said were inexplicable reasons. A republic cannot be governed by a man who acts like a mafia boss, following mafia rules. The minute that happens, the corrosion begins. Every day such a crook holds the highest office in the land represents yet another crack in the law of the land. If this figure decides to wage an actual war on the rule of law, and retains the solid support of his own party, all bets are off.
Remember what he has already survived, largely unscathed. Trump’s remarkable consistency in the polls suggest that his base is highly unlikely to crack. His approve/disapprove in the spring of 2017 was around 42/53; in August 2018, after an avalanche of outrages and scandals, it’s around 42/53. The bond is a personal one, the cult is nonnegotiable, and the zeal more about the elites the heartland hates than the con man they support. As Salena Zito noted this week: “Right now the value of Trump to the Trump voter is he is all that stands between them and handing the keys to Washington back over to the people inside Washington. That’s it. He’s their only option. You’ve got to pick the insiders or him.” But what if picking him over the insiders means picking autocracy over the rule of law? The next few months will tell us if enough Americans prefer a criminal president to a Democratic one. I’m genuinely afraid of what the answer may be.