The verdicts against Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and the plea deal reached by Michael Cohen, formerly Trump’s attorney, came within an hour of each other on Tuesday. The big news led national political columnists to weigh in with their views. What follows is a collection of highlights from a half dozen of them:
Payments were illegal, Mr. President
The payments he arranged, or made to, porn star Stormy Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal constituted campaign donations to the Trump campaign because they were done, as Cohen said under oath Tuesday, to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
And as such, they were larger than the law permits and went illegally unreported. Plus, Cohen said he knew what he was doing, which constitutes criminal intent.
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So why is this not a crime? It’s often hard to parse Trump’s reasoning, but he noted that President Barack Obama wasn’t charged criminally when his re-election campaign violated reporting requirements in 2012. If the Federal Election Commission didn’t send the SWAT team after Obama, why not let Cohen off with a civil fine too?
Because there’s a big difference between failing to report a flurry of thousand-dollar donations in a billion-dollar campaign quickly enough (the Obama campaign offense) and deliberately concealing a pair of huge hush-money payments (what Cohen pleaded guilty to doing). The former looks like an inadvertent error, the latter was clearly an attempt to avoid a potentially damaging pair of scandals.
We know now that Trump’s 2016 campaign had a jaw-dropping ability to survive revelations about the candidate’s infidelity. It’s entirely possible that Clifford and McDougal could have sold their stories to the tabloids, made the talk show circuit in the weeks before the election, and the results would have been the same.
But that’s not the reality we are dealing with. The reality is that Michael Cohen admitted to a crime and implicated Trump in the process. No amount of whataboutism can change that.
John Healy, Los Angeles Times
What might still come
We now know that Trump rubbed up against felons and felonies during his campaign and transition into the White House, which leaves him surrounded by flagrant wrongdoing and a perilous legal vise.
As remarkable as Cohen-Manafort Day was, however, we are also still in the early stages of the Mueller investigation. We still don’t have a full grasp of what Trump knew or did during a career, a campaign and a presidency that has skirted the limits of the law and may well have leapt well beyond them. As Mueller unspools the rest of what he knows, and as the political landscape shifts, Tuesday’s events may end up being remembered as warm-up acts to more devastating revelations – and Trump, the disloyalist-in-chief, may discover that he has few people left who are willing to help him break his fall.
Timothy L. O’Brien, Bloomberg Opinion
Pressure on Manafort to divulge
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s leverage over former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to get him to cooperate in his investigation has never been greater than it is now, after Manafort was convicted Tuesday of eight tax-fraud charges. His hope of somehow escaping conviction is gone. The 69-year-old Manafort is looking at serious prison time – and the only way to get his sentence lowered is if he has something good to bargain to Mueller’s team.
President Donald Trump could still issue a pardon, of course. Indeed, he tweeted Wednesday that he had “such respect for a brave man”– Manafort – who had refused to “break.” But the odds of a pardon do seem lower now that Manafort has been convicted of charges that Trump himself has pointed out are unconnected to his campaign. A pardon would make Trump look guilty by association ... The danger for Trump, though, is that even after a pardon, Manafort could be subpoenaed to testify against Trump. The pardon wouldn’t protect him. Worse, Manafort couldn’t plead the Fifth Amendment after a pardon. He would no longer be in danger of self-incrimination if he had been pardoned for the underlying conduct about which he would be asked to testify. If he refused to speak, he could be jailed for contempt.
The upshot is that Manafort’s role in the Mueller investigation may not be over yet. He’s kept his mouth shut so far. And unless he starts talking soon, he’s going to prison.
Noah Feldman, Bloomberg Opinion
Trump must be investigated
President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen has accused Trump of directing him to commit crimes with the intention of improperly influencing the 2016 election. That is stunning and will have ramifications, I suspect, for voters and every Republican officeholder who does not support an immediate serious investigation by the House and/or Senate Judiciary committees. If the accusations are true, Trump will have committed a crime, should be impeached and, after leaving office, prosecuted. The framers surely would agree that committing a crime in order to obtain the presidency falls in the category of “High Crimes & Misdemeanors.” This is not a prediction of what will occur, but what should follow from our constitutional system.
Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post
Will “fake news” message work this time?
Don’t believe your eyes and ears. Believe only me. That has been President Donald Trump’s message to the public for the past two years, pounded in without a break: The press is the enemy. The news is fake.
In raucous campaign rallies, in lie-filled Fox News interviews, through dissembling surrogates such as Kellyanne Conway and Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump has done his best to prepare the ground for a moment like Tuesday afternoon. It arrived with an extraordinary bang. Within an single, frantic hour, the world learned that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had become felons. Trump himself was implicated in Cohen’s crime.
It was hard not to think about key moments of the Watergate scandal, not long before Richard Nixon’s disgraced resignation from the presidency. But in a divided, disbelieving nation, will this really turn out to be the epic moment it looks like? Or will Trump’s intense, years-long campaign to undermine the media – and truth itself – pay off now, in the clutch?
“If what we learned today doesn’t matter to people, what will?” asked Chris Cuomo on his CNN show. It’s an excellent question, and the answer may be “almost nothing.”
Trump, at a gut level, understands this better than anyone. He knows what he can get away with.
Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post
Manafort’s silence out of fear
Manafort’s refusal so far to cut a deal seems so illogical that you have to wonder what’s really going on. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he is counting on a presidential pardon. But it’s awfully risky to wager your freedom on a pardon from an erratic president who has at times distanced himself from you and who would face enormous political blowback from such an act. And there are still potential state charges against Manafort lurking in the background – charges for which President Donald Trump cannot grant a pardon.
It’s also possible Manafort simply doesn’t want to be a “snitch” as a matter of principle – although given the portrait of Manafort’s principles that emerged at trial, it seems odd that he would choose to die on that particular hill. Or perhaps Manafort truly has no information to offer that would be valuable to Mueller’s investigation. That, too, seems hard to believe, given his role as Trump’s campaign chairman during the critical period involving the campaign’s contacts with Russians. Even if the information would not necessarily lead to criminal charges, it seems very unlikely that Manafort knows nothing Mueller would find worthwhile.
And as long as we’re speculating, we can’t rule out the possibility that Manafort has stayed silent out of fear for his safety. His cooperation could potentially implicate some very powerful people in Russia. Given the way those figures sometimes deal with their enemies, Manafort may believe that spending the rest of his days in a minimum-security prison is preferable to ending up with polonium in his tea.
Randall Eliason, George Washington University Law School