It has been a tough week in court for the president’s former men.
First, a jury found former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort guilty on eight counts of financial crimes (with a lone holdout keeping the jury from consensus on 10 more guilty verdicts). This is only Manafort’s first of two trials; his next, to address his failure to register as a foreign agent, will begin in September. Even before that second trial, the former lobbyist has already has been sentenced to enough years as to spend the rest of his days in prison.
Second, special counsel Mueller’s team pushed back the sentencing for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn, who was fired by the White House allegedly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia during the presidential transition, has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. It would seem that his delayed sentencing is indicative of further cooperation with the special counsel.
And finally, President Trump’s former attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges, including five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a bank, and two campaign finance violations. The last two are of particular note, given that Cohen alleges that they were “directed by a candidate for federal office” — presumably Trump, ordering him to pay hush money to Stephanie Clifford and Karen McDougal to keep news of his affairs with them from affecting the election in its final months.
Team Trump’s various defenses, across all fronts, have been weak. When it comes to Manafort, the White House’s strategy has been to distance themselves from a man who ran the president’s campaign for five months — including during delegate wrangling at the Republican National Convention and selecting Pence as the vice presidential running mate. And while Manafort’s current convictions don’t have anything to do with Russian interference in the 2016 election, it’s less certain that his upcoming trial will be so disconnected.
Meanwhile, on the Cohen front, the president claimed in an interview with (who else) Fox News that he knew about Cohen’s payments only “later on” and insisted he did nothing wrong. This clashes with both Trump’s prior claim that he did not know about the payments at all, as well as the previously released taped recordings of then-candidate Trump clearly discussing the payments with Cohen.
How exactly all of this fits in with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe remains to be seen. But for now, we need to remain focused on critical goals and clear facts.
The critical goal is to allow all investigations into the Trump orbit’s wrongdoing to continue. This president and his White House have tried to bully critics, attack journalists for asking pressing questions, undermine oversight institutions, and muddy the waters of every story at every turn with whataboutism, red herrings, and outright lies. They must not be allowed to succeed.
Part of keeping them from doing so hinges on repeating clear facts. When it comes to Russian interference, we know Moscow worked to elect candidate Trump — and that people in the Trump orbit were eager to accept that help, and have lied about it since. Cohen may have new information on the collusion front if he can prove the president was aware of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, wherein the campaign tried to get “dirt” on Secretary Clinton from the Russian government. Flynn too could be providing insight, depending on who actually directed him to have those conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
But Cohen’s other allegations open up a new front independent of the Russia issue. The president’s alleged direction of Cohen to pay affair hush money is a serious crime — one already corroborated by the taped conversation and the president brazenly changing his own story. While more details will surely emerge, the core message is already clear: the president of the United States is implicated in a crime that doubtlessly had a critical impact on his own election.
All told, the president is experiencing the consequences of surrounding himself with a culture of corruption and a gallery of individuals to whom immoral and illegal conduct, gratuitous self-enrichment, and saving their own skin all seem to be second nature. And as all the president’s former men keep revealing details, our elected officials in Congress need to remind themselves that we are a nation of laws to which everyone — even President Trump — is accountable.
Graham F. West is the communications director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.