In nearly simultaneous proceedings in two courtrooms 240 miles apart Tuesday, all eyes turned to the man who wasn’t there.
President Trump’s name was not mentioned directly in either court, but his presence was inescapable, and the day’s head-snapping events seemed certain to mark a milestone in an already tumultuous presidency.
On a single day, indeed within a single hour, Trump’s former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, and his former campaign chairman became a convicted felon.
The guilty plea by Michael Cohen in federal court in New York came with his sworn admission that when he illegally paid off two women who had threatened to expose sexual affairs with Trump, he had acted “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and had done so “for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016.
The guilty verdicts for Paul Manafort in federal court in Virginia marked the first trial test — and first victory — for a prosecution team Trump had denounced just a day earlier as “Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs.”
The prospect of lengthy prison terms could prompt both men to provide evidence to prosecutors against Trump himself, or against others in the president’s inner circle. Beyond that, Cohen’s dramatic admission in court that he broke the law at Trump’s behest could put the president in direct legal jeopardy.
At nearly the same time those events unfolded, prosecutors and defense lawyers announced that sentencing for Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, had been delayed again, suggesting that Flynn might still be providing useful information to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team.
Flynn pleaded guilty late last October to making false statements to investigators and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office.
The multiple developments “will increase the pressure on the president to cooperate with Mueller to testify” despite the resistance of Trump’s lawyers, predicted David Gergen, a veteran of presidential administrations dating to Richard Nixon.
“It’s now apparent to one and all that there’s a cancer on the Trump presidency,” Gergen said, borrowing a phrase that former White House counsel John Dean famously used about Nixon during Watergate. “It’s now apparent that we’ve been lied to on several fronts here for a long time.”
But however dramatic the day, the history of American political scandals including Nixon’s suggests that there will likely not be any sudden shift in Trump’s standing with the public, nor any break from the deeply polarized reactions the president inspires.
“None of this is really new to voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, which has been taking surveys on congressional elections around the country. “It’s just going to dig in both sides more.”
“The president is going to spin it some way,” and his hard-core supporters, who are deeply invested in his success, “will buy that,” Murray said.
Indeed, Trump moved quickly to lay out his rhetorical defense and distance himself from his former advisors.
“It doesn’t involve me,” he said when reporters asked him late Tuesday about Manafort’s conviction. “This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” he added. “This started as Russian collusion. This has absolutely nothing to do — this is a witch hunt and it’s a disgrace.”
He did not respond to questions about Cohen.
Trump spoke in West Virginia, where he had flown for a campaign rally in support of Republican Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey.
On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders, who know how tightly their electoral fates are tied to the president’s, echoed Trump’s talking point.
“I don’t think it implicates him at all, particularly on the Russia investigation,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican leader, told reporters, noting that neither Manafort nor Cohen were charged with crimes related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“People who do bad things, who break the law, need to be held accountable. But this doesn’t add anything to the allegations of misconduct relative to the Russia investigation,” he said.
In one of several ironies of the day, the courtroom dramas played out just hours after White House political aides had met with reporters to outline a robust fall campaign schedule for Trump, including stops in several mostly safe Republican states.
The schedule is predicated on a calculation that Trump remains “his party’s best political asset,” said one of the advisors, who spoke to reporters under ground rules that did not allow them to be quoted by name.
A more accurate summary might be that Trump serves as the “best political asset” for both parties these days.
Polls in races across the country have identified the president as a singularly motivating force, both for those who strongly admire him — roughly a quarter of the electorate — and for the roughly 4 in 10 who despise him.
For Democrats, who have felt increasingly confident of winning control of at least the House this fall, the verdicts and guilty pleas amplify a developing campaign theme that the Republicans have become the party of corruption.
“It’s actually breathtaking,” said Craig Holman of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “We haven’t seen this many indictments and convictions even during the whole Watergate period,” he said. “The Trump administration’s only been around for about a year and a half.”
“There is no draining of the swamp going on here,” he added. “That is very clear.”
The image of corruption has been helped along by a spate of Republican elected officials charged in recent weeks with crimes.
Most recently, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) was indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. Earlier this month, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) was indicted on insider trading charges.
Collins and Hunter were among the first Republican members of the House to back Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
For Republicans, meanwhile, the developments in court only deepen the problems they face with a midterm election that’s just 11 weeks away.
The mounting legal furor surrounding Trump poses a near-hopeless choice for many Republican candidates, said veteran pollster Peter Hart.
“If you try and get clear of the president, he labels you a Benedict Arnold, and the base stays home. If you stick to him, your problem is you can’t talk to independents who have been skeptical of Trump from the start,” he said.
Among the small but persistent band of “Never Trump” Republicans, some predicted that Tuesday’s events might be enough to break the president’s hold on their party.
“Corruption is a brutal weight to carry in politics,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist and bitter Trump foe.
“This is where the limits of the reality distortion field are discovered, where people go to jail and lives are wrecked,” he added.
But Trump has made a highly successful political career so far out of feeding his supporters’ sense that he — and they — are under siege. His supporters already have begun to try to motivate voters by warning that Democrats, if they win this fall, will aim to remove Trump from office.
“The midterms now become as much about impeachment as anything else,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant based in Sacramento who also has been highly critical of Trump.
“That could boost Republican turnout,” at least in some parts of the country, Stutzman said. At the same time, it could create huge risks for Republicans in more closely divided swing districts.
“Republican incumbents and candidates in a lot of the more competitive districts have some very difficult analysis about what they’re going to say about this,” he said. “You make a deal with the devil, you eventually have to pay.”
Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn, Chris Megerian and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.