For most of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, his critics — including this editorial page — have complained about his disdain for the truth and his appalling attacks on the legal system, a free press, immigrants and minorities, while also lamenting the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to even acknowledge the outrageousness of Trump’s behavior, let alone stand up to him. But events this week — and Trump’s reaction to them — bring matters to a crisis point. It is time for those who have averted their eyes to face facts.
On Tuesday, the president’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight violations of federal campaign-finance, bank and tax laws. As part of his plea, Cohen admitted to arranging six-figure payments to two women to buy their silence about affairs they said they had with Trump. Cohen said his actions were directed by a candidate (identified by Cohen’s lawyer as Trump) and aimed to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen may not have much credibility left, but he was speaking to a federal judge when he implicated Trump in a federal crime. It’s the most direct accusation of wrongdoing leveled against Trump to date — the sort of allegation that, if borne out by the evidence, could result in felony charges against any candidate short of a sitting president.
Are congressional Republicans so deeply in Trump’s pocket that they would continue to back him regardless of the evidence gathered against him?
In another courtroom on Tuesday, Paul Manafort, the veteran political consultant who had served as Trump’s campaign chairman, was convicted by a jury of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failure to disclose a foreign bank account. Although the charges didn’t involve collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, they were brought by the office of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the respected former FBI director whom Trump has defamed as “disgraced and discredited.”
What were the president’s reactions to these judgments against men he had raised to positions of trust in the campaign that ushered him into the White House? They were disgustingly dismissive.
About Cohen, he tweeted — falsely — that “Michael Cohen plead[ed] guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime.” There is no question that what Cohen admitted to — making large, undisclosed payments on behalf of a campaign in deliberate violation of contribution limits and reporting requirements — is a crime. Then Trump added: “President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!” That’s because the Obama campaign didn’t report quickly enough a tiny fraction of the $722 million it collected. By contrast, Cohen deliberately hid two large contributions that were designed to keep scandalous allegations from voters.
For Manafort, he expressed respect for a “brave man” who “refused to ‘break’” and he made it clear that he regarded Manafort’s prosecution as part of the “witch hunt” he has incessantly complained about. That raises the highly alarming possibility that Trump might seek to erase Manafort’s conviction by means of a presidential pardon.
Such an abuse of the pardon power, as we observed in an editorial on Wednesday, would be grounds for an impeachment inquiry. So, of course, would any evidence adduced by Mueller that Trump was aware of criminal coordination between his campaign and Russia or obstructed justice. And impeachment isn’t the only way this presidency could end if there were proof that the president had engaged in criminal misconduct before or after he took office. Richard Nixon resigned when leaders of his own party convinced him that he had lost support in Congress.
Would Republican leaders of the current Congress have the fortitude to take that message to Trump in a similar situation? Or are congressional Republicans so deeply in Trump’s pocket that they would continue to back him regardless of the evidence gathered against him? Will we see even so much as a single congressional inquiry into the payments Cohen swears he made on Trump’s behalf?
So far, Republican officeholders have condoned Trump’s excesses and outrages so as not to alienate their Trump-supporting constituents, and their reaction to this week’s events has been characteristically evasive. But the verdict and guilty plea in northern Virginia and Manhattan are categorically different from the Trump controversies and conflagrations that have come before. If this week’s events don’t stiffen their spines, voters should deprive them of their majority.