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A plea, a conviction and peril ahead for Trump, nation

August 22, 2018

It is not and has never been a “witch hunt.” That is more demonstrably true than ever now that the president is directly named, under oath, as participating in criminal behavior — behavior that also increases his risk of impeachment.

This is a stunning moment for the president and the nation. And it occurs before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — the “witch hunt” Trump alleges — even concludes.

There are many layers of meaning and dangers for President Trump attached to the guilty plea of Trump fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen and the conviction of one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, both occurring Tuesday. But these two cases add to the body of already existing evidence that the president’s characterization of Mueller’s investigation is defensive rhetoric devoid of credibility.

That investigation was begun to probe possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign but was authorized to follow up on leads that might lead to other crimes. This is what ensnared Manafort, convicted now of eight felony counts of tax and bank fraud unconnected to the collusion allegations. But it has also led to six guilty pleas — including Cohen’s — and charges against 13 Russian nationals, three entities, 12 Russian military intelligence officers and a Manafort associate.

If this is a witch hunt, it is only because there are so many real witches to be hunted. And together they also render meaningless the president’s cavalier dismissal, sometimes elevated right up to denial, of Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election.

But the Cohen plea in particular is fraught with dire implications for the president. In his plea made under oath, Cohen says the president essentially directed him to commit campaign finance fraud, involving paying hush money to women who claim to have had affairs with Trump. Then-candidate Trump was allegedly trying to block revelations that might have torpedoed his rising chances for winning the presidency. In other words, this was money paid to help Trump win an election — amounting to campaign expenditures or donations that were cloaked as other things.

Grasp that for a moment. Trump’s lawyer, under oath, said the president committed a criminal act. Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to those two campaign finance violations, in addition to five counts of tax evasion and a count of making a false statement to a bank.

But that is not the only danger posed to Trump. Cohen was central to businessman Trump’s dealing with Russians and might, if he cooperates with prosecutors to lighten his sentence, reveal connections germane to the Russian collusion investigation.

The Cohen plea and the Manafort conviction on eight of 18 counts also stand as more evidence that the president’s pledge to “drain the swamp,” as with his witch-hunt characterization, is without substance. A man who willfully and knowingly surrounds himself with alligators is feeding not draining the swamp. Hiring such people goes not just to the president’s judgment but to his character.

The nation now enters a period that has a workout for the Constitution written all over it. If the president, as appears likely, refuses to be interviewed by the Special Counsel’s office, will there be a subpoena? If that occurs, will the president resist that in the courts, perhaps even up to the Supreme Court? Will the GOP-controlled Congress continue to fecklessly look the other way or will its judiciary committees probe this claim of criminal violations of campaign finance law? They should. Will the president issue pardons? Cohen’s lawyer says his client doesn’t want one, but Manafort might. And, if pardons occur, are these tantamount to obstruction of justice, adding to evidence that such obstruction has already occurred in other instances?

In any case, it’s clear from the fruits already produced that the Mueller investigation is acting in the public interest. Congress must resist any effort by the president to derail it.

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