How did you go bankrupt, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” asks another.
“Two ways,” came the often-quoted response: “Gradually and then suddenly.”
For President Trump, this was the week gradual gave way to sudden.
The Constitution likely protects Trump from indictment, Republican senators form a bulwark against removal by impeachment. But as of this week, Trump’s ability to avoid the political equivalent of bankruptcy sits seriously in doubt.
The gradual part for Trump has run for two years. FBI agents, first under the direction of Director James B. Comey and now at the behest of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, have methodically probed into possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents who sought to influence the 2016 election.
This spring, the pace accelerated. Mueller moved toward the first trial in his case, brought a spate of indictments and turned over part of the growing investigation to prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Early in April, agents working for those New York prosecutors raided the law office, home and hotel room of Trump’s longtime associate and sometime lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Trump responded with rage, but insisted Cohen would remain loyal.
“Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble,” he tweeted a couple of weeks after the raid took place. “Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
The sudden part for Trump arrived just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday and proved how wrong that prediction had been. Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felonies involving tax evasion, loan fraud and violations of campaign finance laws, as David Willman wrote.
The last of those crimes involved hush money payments to two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump. As part of his guilty plea, Cohen announced he had acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” an unnamed but clearly identifiable “candidate for federal office.” The hush money was paid, he said, “for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016.
At the same hour, as Chris Megerian wrote, a jury announced that it had found Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, guilty on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud.
Afterward, Trump praised Manafort as “brave” for risking prison rather than cooperate with federal law enforcement. He denounced Cohen for having “flipped,” using language, as many noted, that sounded more like outtakes from “The Godfather” than statements of a president.
As Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote, Trump’s reactions illustrated his ”everybody does it” view of political corruption, which many of his supporters share.
So now what happens?
As Megerian and Willman wrote, Trump now faces legal assaults on two fronts. In the New York case, the Trump Organization’s finances are coming under the microscope — something that could directly threaten the president and his family. Prosecutors have already taken extensive testimony from David Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend who owns the National Enquirer and has used the supermarket tabloid to protect Trump and savage his enemies. He’s now another loyalist turned “rat,” in Trump’s parlance.
By shifting that part of the investigation to the New York prosecutors, Mueller gave it political insulation. Even if Trump fired the special counsel — a move that would come at a high political cost, but one Trump has considered — the New York case would continue.
Ultimately, Trump’s fate depends on politics as much as legal jousting. The Justice Department, since the Nixon era, has taken the position that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted. To have an unelected judge and jury convict a president would violate the constitutional idea that each branch of government has separate powers, the argument goes.
In the political realm, as Noah Bierman, Eli Stokols and I wrote, Trump now faces a reckoning.
The week’s developments have all but guaranteed that the fall elections will be a referendum on the president and his conduct. Republicans, who had hoped to run on tax cuts and the strong economy, watched unhappily as Trump spent the summer hijacking their campaign plans. They had hoped to move to safer ground in the fall. Now they know there’s little chance of that.
All that has given another boost to Democratic hopes of taking control of the House in November’s midterms. As Evan Halper and Sarah Wire wrote, Republican strategists pin their remaining hopes on the chance that Democrats will overreach and fail. Some Democrats fear that, too. For now, however, the wind is clearly at their backs.
A Democratic victory in November would not mean the end for Trump. Even if the House voted to impeach him, there’s currently no prospect of two-thirds of the Senate voting to remove him. But a Democratic House would likely bring two years of investigations, hearings and further public disclosure of Trump’s secrets, probably including the tax returns he has so fiercely withheld from public view. Lawmakers could also use control of the government’s money to hobble at least some White House initiatives.
Escaping that form of political bankruptcy remains possible — ask Bill Clinton, who survived impeachment and managed to turn the political tide against his accusers. And Trump retains the support of his most ardent backers, about a quarter of the nation’s voters who tell pollsters they strongly approve of him.
Unlike Clinton, however, Trump has not demonstrated an ability to broaden his base of support.
In his business life, Trump has survived six bankruptcies and gone on to greater fame. Whether he has the skill or instincts to do the same in his political life will now be put to a supreme test.
REINFORCING THE BASE
So far, Trump has stuck to a playbook that calls for reinforcing the loyalty of those who already back him, rather than trying to reach out for new supporters.
All week, he has lashed out at perceived enemies, vociferously attacking the “rigged witch hunt” and belittling Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
Wednesday night, following the lead of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump tweeted criticism of South Africa for “seizing land from white farmers” and suggested that had led to “large scale killing of farmers.”
As Matt Pearce wrote, Trump’s tweet amplified an allegation that has long been a talking point for white nationalists.
The president has also ratcheted up his already intense rhetoric on immigration. As Noah Bierman wrote, Trump believes Democrats have given him an opening with the calls by some in the party to “abolish ICE.”
CORRUPTION GRAND AND PETTY
Democrats would like to portray the Republicans as the party of corruption — a theme they successfully used in the 2006 elections and one that Republicans used against them in Clinton’s first term.
Right now, Republicans seem eager to help their opponents make that case. Earlier this summer, New York Rep. Chris Collins was indicted on insider trading charges. This week, San Diego County Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife were indicted for allegedly using campaign funds to finance their personal lives.
The indictment described a scheme of petty chiseling that in some instances was almost laughably corrupt — diverting money to pay for an airplane ticket for a pet rabbit, for example.
Hunter represents a heavily Republican district that covers the vast, mostly rural eastern swath of San Diego County. Normally, his would be among the safest of Republican seats. But, as Michael Finnegan and Christine Mai-Duc wrote, the indictment at least opens the door for the Democrats, giving Republicans yet another expensive seat to try to defend in the state.
Hunter’s Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, is clearly more liberal than the district. As Javier Panzar wrote, he’s a 29-year-old Palestinian Mexican American who spent part of his childhood in the Gaza Strip. If he wins, he will have pulled off one of the upsets of the year and will be a hero to the Democratic left.
Campa-Najjar wasn’t the first choice of Democratic Party officials, who preferred a more conservative candidate, former Navy SEAL Josh Butner, in the June primary. Hunter is clearly not the choice of Republican officials at this point.
But under the state’s top-two primary system, the parties have no real ability to tamper with the matchup that primary voters set. Unlike the New York case, where Collins was able to get off the ballot and allow the party to nominate a replacement, Republicans are stuck with Hunter. And as John Myers explained, in adopting the top-two system, lawmakers also removed write-in candidates from general election ballots.
A TURN ON HEALTHCARE
While corruption has been emerging as a theme for Democrats, the issue they have most frequently emphasized in the campaign so far has been healthcare.
As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, that’s a huge shift in the politics of healthcare, which for the past three election cycles was a rallying cry for Republicans.
Sen. Kamala Harris has begun pushing legislation aimed at addressing a separate health issue — the steady increase in mortality rates among women having babies in the U.S.
Black mothers are especially at risk. African American women in the United States are three to four times more likely than white women to die immediately before or after childbirth, Haberkorn reported. That’s a discrepancy that Harris says the country needs to face up to and address.
A BOON FOR COAL
Trump’s appointees have continued to press ahead with undoing the Obama administration’s efforts to combat global warming.
A few weeks ago, they proposed a halt in efforts to increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks and began trying to revoke California’s current authority to set its own, tougher rules. This week, as Evan Halper wrote, they moved to rewrite the rules for power plants to boost use of coal, giving coal-producing states more ability to set their own, looser rules.
The two moves underscore part of the administration’s approach — they support states’ rights — as long as they are coal states.
ANOTHER ENTRY IN THE 2020 SWEEPSTAKES
We’re still more than 16 months away from the first contests of the 2020 nomination race, and already roughly a dozen undeclared candidates have started touring states that have early primaries.
This week saw yet another entry — Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who has parlayed his representation of Stormy Daniels, the porn actress, into a ticket to national fame. He headed for New Hampshire, where he vowed to bring his cable TV debating skills to bear against Trump. Avenatti’s move showed how Trump has redefined what’s considered possible in presidential politics, Finnegan wrote.
That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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