The hour of 4 pm Tuesday, potentially one of the most consequential hours in the history of the American presidency, made clear that history books will almost certainly note Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 election win with an asterisk.
Just minutes apart, in courtrooms in New York and outside Washington, DC, two of Trump’s closest aides—his longtime personal lawyer and his former campaign chairman—became felons, as the former pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, and the latter was found guilty by a jury on eight other charges.
For the better part of two years, Trump has remained by all accounts obsessed with his narrow, unlikely campaign victory, bragging about his electoral college totals in numerous settings, including to foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin, even as he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. Yet after Tuesday, the victory appears increasingly tainted, the American presidency as the spoils of ill-gotten gains, an election whose pivotal moments were shaped—potentially decisively—by Russian attacks overseas and hush money cover-ups at home.
After all, the question, following Tuesday’s back-to-back bombshells, is no longer whether Trump’s surprise victory was aided by criminal acts—that much has been made clear both by Robert Mueller’s sweeping indictments against two dozen Russians, working for Vladimir Putin’s military intelligence as well as for the Internet Research Agency, as well as by Michael Cohen’s decision to plead guilty to campaign finance violations.
To state that more simply: At least two separate criminal conspiracies helped elect Donald Trump president in 2016, one executed by the Russian government, another by Trump’s personal lawyer.
The questions now are how many different crimes aided the president—and how closely and personally involved was Donald Trump himself?
Six Big Questions
Presumably that’s a question that special counsel Robert Mueller has been studying for some time. The facts surrounding Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas Tuesday were on Mueller’s radar as early as November, according to public reports, although the investigation targeting him only became public in April, when federal agents raided his home and office.
Trump himself brushed off the Manafort verdict Tuesday night, saying, “It doesn’t involve me,” which is technically true but misses the huge implications for how the spiraling—and growing—investigation will unfold.
We’re left, after Tuesday, with six big questions, both political and criminal:
How long does Paul Manafort go to prison? Manafort, who is already in jail after allegedly tampering with witnesses in his case, faces a stunning comedown: The 69-year-old political consultant, with a taste for a luxurious lifestyle that included ostrich jackets, appears unlikely to breathe another free breath. He faces as many as 80 years in prison after Tuesday’s conviction, as well as another trial, set for next month in Washington, that could add perhaps as much as another century of prison time. Pending a presidential pardon—which itself would surely set off a national political firestorm—Paul Manafort is going to prison.
Given the breadth and depth of the charges against him, the fact that Manafort did not already strike a plea deal seems to indicate that he is not likely to attempt to cooperate now; however, evidence of cooperation could garner him a shorter sentence. Will he finally share what he knows—or does he even know anything of value?
What will Michael Cohen say? Fixer Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas did not come Tuesday with a cooperation agreement—he is not obligated to speak with Robert Mueller’s team—but Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, told MSNBC last night, “Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows.”
After Tuesday, the victory appears increasingly tainted, the American presidency as the spoils of ill-gotten gains.
Yet it’s hard to know how to read Cohen’s plea deal coming without a cooperation agreement. Why would he start speaking now, rather than use what he knows as leverage up front with prosecutors? Does it mean that Cohen (a) refused to cooperate before, (b) doesn’t actually have anything of value to tell prosecutors, or (c) that prosecutors feel they already have sufficient evidence regarding what Michael Cohen knows, and that his added testimony would be superfluous? Each of those scenarios has interesting and distinct impacts on the case against the president going forward.
Remember, the raid on Cohen’s office netted prosecutors nearly 300,000 documents, a cache probably as close to any that could serve as a Rosetta Stone to understanding Trump’s world and his decisionmaking.
What happens next with “Individual-1”? Surely the most remarkable moment in Tuesday’s legal drama came as Michael Cohen made clear, speaking in federal court in New York, that his actions to pay hush money in the final days of the 2016 election were directed by a “candidate for federal office” and “for the purposes of influencing the election.”
The court documents, while not naming Donald Trump, leave no doubt as to the identity of Individual-1: The plea agreement refers to “Individual-1” becoming President of the United States.
It’s a point Lanny Davis made certain to emphasize: “Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
There remains substantial legal uncertainty about whether the President of the United States can be indicted in office—although the question is not as settled as Trump’s allies have argued—but as the nation wrestles with the implications of Tuesday’s drama this stunning statement seems clear: If Donald J. Trump weren’t president, he would likely have already been indicted.
Speaking yesterday after Cohen’s historic guilty plea, the FBI’s top agent in New York, William F. Sweeney, Jr., offered a strong condemnation, choosing words that seemed a carefully veiled warning to the president from an agency under daily fire from the Oval Office: “As we all know, the truth can only remain hidden for so long before the FBI brings it to light. We are all expected to follow the rule of law, and the public expects us—the FBI—to enforce the law equally.”
Where does Robert Mueller go next? The special counsel’s investigation today is the strongest it has been, buoyed by the victory against Manafort and—perhaps—the future cooperation of Cohen.
Mueller faces an increasingly angry, embattled president—at war with the intelligence community and the media—and Mueller’s team is under increasing personal assault from the presidential Twitter account, which just this week has called Mueller’s team “thugs” and said the investigation is “disgraced and discredited.” Meanwhile, “Witch Hunt” tweets have become an almost daily phenomenon. Trump this week even went so far as to suggest that he could run the investigation himself, as if the normal functioning of judicial independence and the rule of law was just another personal presidential prerogative.
The president’s allies will surely try to spin that Mueller fell short in the case against Manafort, given that he was convicted on fewer than half of the overall charges. And surely the aggressive type-A prosecutors on the team, like Andrew Weissmann, would have liked an across-the-board victory on all 18 counts. But the jury’s verdict was still a resounding win for Mueller. His team has been tested in court, the evidence weighed by a jury of ordinary citizens, and they won convictions in every area of criminal conduct they charged: bank fraud, tax fraud, and failure to disclose a foreign bank account.
‘If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?’
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s Lawyer
Thus far, Mueller has carefully established the corners of the conspiracy around Trump’s campaign and Russia’s attack: The social media campaign of the Internet Research Agency, the active cyberattacks by the GRU intelligence service, the campaign and transition contacts with Russians by people like George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn, and then the money laundering and sketchy business contacts of Trump aides like Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
Future indictments surely will fill in the gaps between those corners, connecting the dots from one to another. So what lies in between, and what’s on Mueller’s radar next?
The fact that Manafort’s trials have remained part of Mueller’s probe all along appears to indicate that Mueller sees a direct connection between Manafort’s Ukrainian business dealings and Russia’s conspiracy against the presidential election. In all other areas, including in Michael Cohen’s case, Mueller has handed off “unrelated” prosecutions to other investigators, including referring both Cohen’s case and other lobbyists caught up with Manafort to the Southern District of New York.
There remain numerous open questions in the Mueller investigation. I outlined nine of them last month. Since then, we know, Mueller has continued to pursue the investigation around Roger Stone, with more testimony to come in early September. We know too, from the Manafort trial, that prosecutors have been talking with Manafort’s aide Rick Gates about a broader range of Russian contacts around the election. At the same time, new sentencing documents released about George Papadopoulos appear to change his role in the case. While he’s been long believed to have cooperated closely with Mueller, it appears that’s not the case and that, in fact, his early stonewalling cost the FBI a chance to focus on the mysterious professor Joseph Mifsud, who appears to have been a Russian conduit.
What other investigations—and crimes—are out there that we don’t know about? It appears increasingly clear that the circles around the president are filled with myriad—and often mundane—criminal behavior.
Yesterday, all but buried under the headlines from Cohen and Manafort, federal investigators also indicted GOP congressman Duncan Hunter for misusing campaign funds. The investigation had entirely nothing to do with Donald Trump except for this: Hunter was the second congressman to endorse Trump’s then-longshot presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the first congressman to endorse Trump, representative Chris Collins, was indicted just last week on charges of insider trading.
Meanwhile, the president’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has already pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, a charge that included Flynn’s illegal work as an unregistered foreign agent for the Turkish government. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, similarly has pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges. It seems hard to imagine that Cohen would have pleaded guilty so quickly if “all” he faced was the campaign finance violation—instead, he was hit with years of damning tax fraud, too, dating back to well before the presidential campaign ever started.
That simple fact that so many people around Trump are engaged in their own illegal activity, often unrelated to Trump himself, provides federal investigators enormous leverage when it comes to getting answers about the questions that they do care about regarding the president’s actions.
Similarly, we continue to be surprised by events that appear perhaps tangentially related to the Russia probe, like the arrest of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina and her years-long effort to cultivate sources inside the NRA and the conservative movement.
Moreover, Russia’s attacks on American democracy have not ceased. In Tuesday’s whirlwind of news, the day began with word that Microsoft had seized and shut down a number of Russian-linked websites aimed at attacking presidential critics and candidates in the midterm elections.
When does this cross over from the courts to politics? The questions around the president have always been political, not criminal. The Constitution allows for impeaching a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors” but leaves that phrase wonderfully, ambiguously undefined. A crime, in short, can be almost anything Congress decides it to be.
This is a political reality that the president’s TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, understands inherently: His increasingly far-fetched arguments on cable news, how it’s impossible to separate fact from opinion and how “truth isn’t truth,” are aimed less at a courtroom—where Giuliani himself had no trouble separating facts from opinion when he was one of the nation’s most famous federal prosecutors—than at reassuring President Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, and in the GOP writ large, not to abandon hope.
Thus the question for lawmakers—and for an electorate looking ahead to congressional ballots in November—is whether anything that’s happened this week changes the political calculus around backing the president?
It seems hard to imagine that if the personal lawyer of either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had just pleaded guilty to paying hush money to a porn star in the days before the presidential election—and said, under oath, that Obama or Clinton had directed the payment be made—that speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, or the chair of the House oversight committee would sit quietly on the sidelines. Yet, for now, GOP lawmakers appear to believe that supporting the president remains good politics.
In fact, Republican senator Lindsey Graham all but explicitly endorsed any presidential crime short of actual treason Tuesday night, saying, “Campaign finance violations, I don’t know what will come from that, but the thing that will hurt the President the most is if, in fact, his campaign did coordinate with a foreign government like Russia. Anything short of that is probably going to fall into partisan camps.”
What, if anything, will change that belief is the biggest unknown in American politics today.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the author of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manafort by Zach Gibson/Bloomberg/Getty Images; Cohen by Drew Angerer/Getty Images