Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was found by a jury to be guilty on eight fraud charges yesterday. At roughly the same time, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of personal income tax evasion, one count of making false statements to a financial institution to get a loan, and two counts related to illegal campaign contributions. Manfort’s case is being handled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Mueller spun off the Cohen case to federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York.
The special counsel was ostensibly appointed and given unlimited funds and wide-reaching powers to investigate allegations of treasonous collusion with Russia by President Trump to steal the 2016 election. It was the continuation of an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign that used human informants, wiretaps, national security letters, and other surveillance.
While no treasonous collusion between Russia and Trump has been unveiled despite two years of thorough investigation, the special counsel has rung up Trump associates for lying to the FBI, as well as various crimes unrelated to Trump or Russia. Mueller also indicted some Russian corporations for crimes related to low-level election meddling and Russian military intelligence officials for hacks of Democratic officials’ emails.
Here are six takeaways from yesterday’s news.
1. Nothing To Do With Russia
President Trump insists he never colluded with Russia to steal an election. He claims the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.” Yesterday, various members of the Resistance, including Never Trump members and some voices in the media, mocked the notion of a witch hunt on the grounds that Manafort and Cohen had been found or pleaded guilty to crimes unrelated to Russia collusion. For example:
First off, witch hunts are routinely “successful” by this standard. During the Salem Witch Hunt, for example, more than 200 people were accused, 20 were executed, and 5 died in prison. More recently, countless people were accused and plenty of people were convicted during the day-care hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s, and many had their cases overturned and were compensated for their time in prison. We use the term to describe bouts of paranoia and injustice. Successful convictions and even executions don’t debunk the claim of a witch hunt, though they can support the claim.
Even with the pace and vigor of the Mueller investigation, we’re unlikely to reach the numbers our forbears attained in their witch hunts. All of which to say, at this point, even the dimmer members of the Resistance should know that “witch hunt” refers not to finding bad Russians, or shady Americans, but to the orchestrated campaign of suggesting Trump is a “Salem witch” who treasonously colluded with Russians to steal election.
The Washington Post called the Manafort conviction “a major if not complete victory for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as he continues to investigate the president’s associates.” Voices claiming that the Manafort and Cohen legal problems vindicate Mueller should note that the Manafort conviction had literally nothing to do with Mueller’s charge of investigating collusion with Russia to steal an election, and not just because the charges predate Trump.
Mueller has been throwing the book at Manafort, presumably in hopes he’d spill the beans on Russia collusion. Facing decades in prison, he has not been able to provide Mueller anything supporting the claim. Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis has talked a big game about help he can provide Mueller the goods for the theory, but even Mueller didn’t seem to think the Cohen case was worth hanging on to. And he kept Manafort, so that’s saying something.
When federal prosecutors induced Cohen to plead out after poring over his finances and legal work, the most they got from him was to claim that non-disclosure agreements he arranged with two women were actually campaign contributions. He didn’t cop to anything in the dossier that has undergirded the Russia investigation — not an alleged visit to Prague to arrange treasonous collusion, nor any involvement with the hacking of Democratic emails.
Still, Andrew McCarthy suggests the entire reason Mueller held onto the Manafort case was so he could squeeze him on Trump-Russia collusion. That remains the optimistic vision for the Resistance.
As Byron York notes, “The importance of the financial crimes case against Manafort was never the financial crimes themselves. It was the prosecutors’ hope that, by charging the hell out of the offenses alleged, by playing hardball with the defendant with a guns-drawn-at-dawn search-warrant raid, by jailing him over a debatable obstruction of justice charge that Manafort could be pressured into spilling what prosecutors apparently thought were a lot of beans about the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.”
He notes that as of this date, there is still no support for the theory from Manafort, national security adviser Michael Flynn, or deputy campaign manager and Manafort aide Rick Gates, all of whom have been investigated and charged with crimes, and that none of those crimes included a Trump-Russia conspiracy. As York put it, “Could such a conspiracy exist, and Flynn and Gates be totally out of it?”
2. Fraud Is Bad
Although the charges have nothing to do with Russia, that doesn’t mean Manafort and Cohen aren’t shady and corrupt. Had they not lied on their tax returns for years to keep money that was legally owed to the U.S. government, they wouldn’t be facing jail time and large fines for their failure.
Nobody likes paying onerous taxes, but the way to fight high taxes is through political means, not by lying to the federal government. Likewise, lying to a financial institution about the amount of debt you have in order to secure a line of credit, as Cohen pleaded guilty to doing, is also fraudulent and a form of theft.
The 10 Commandments teach us that we should not steal, we should not lie, and we should not covet. U.S. laws are built on this moral foundation and we are not to break them.
3. Infidelity Is Destructive
Nothing in Manafort’s legal troubles implicates Trump. It’s a different story with Cohen, whose guilty pleas on campaign contributions are related to non-disclosure agreements he facilitated with two women. While we don’t know the facts underlying the situation with the two women, both claimed a sexual relationship with Trump while he was married.
Whether they were lying and receiving payment from him for their silence, or telling the truth and receiving payment from him for their silence, his history with women made him an easy target. Yes, men with wealth and power face such situations more than others do, but you should live your life in such a way that you do not have to pay off women who are making allegations.
Adultery is wrong. Spouses are called to live a sexually pure and decent life in what they say and do. Husband and wife are to love and honor each other. Infidelity has an effect far beyond the person philandering, including the temporary lover, the betrayed spouse and children with the spouse, the children that arise from sexual unions with various women, and even business associates and voters.
It may not be illegal to have an affair, or to be induced to sign a non-disclosure agreement because infidelity is a believable charge, but it is a moral failing. It’s a lot more difficult to blackmail Vice President Michael Pence on these grounds, even if the media mock him for his fidelity to his spouse. This sordid tale of non-disclosure agreements signed with two pornography actresses should be a warning to anyone who even thinks about cheating that there is much to be lost from the act.
4. Targeted For Political Connections
Manafort had been previously targeted and examined by the federal government and never charged with anything. The FBI even in some cases examined the exact same records and documents that resulted in charges this time. Washington D.C. is teeming with political consultants engaged in similar shenanigans who walk free every day. One of Manafort’s associates in the whole lobbying enterprise was Tony Podesta, who has yet to be indicted for his role.
When he announced Cohen’s guilty plea, the federal prosecutor gave a nice little speech about the rule of law and its importance. But one of the things that undergirds the rule of law is its equal application.
A big problem for federal prosecutors is that public trust in their application of the rule of law is low because of how they handle political cases. You can read about how Mueller’s FBI routinely abused prosecutorial discretion, including the anthrax case bungling, leniency for Clinton associate Sandy Berger, the disgraceful Scooter Libby prosecution, the railroading of Ted Stevens, and more.
You can read about James Comey’s long history of botching obstruction cases. Or you can read the inspector general report into the Hillary Clinton investigation, where at every single step along the way, the FBI tread lightly and gently in the face of demonstrable crime, unquestionable lying to agents, and other prosecutable activity.
It’s not that Cohen and Manafort aren’t shady people. They are. It’s that the American public can see that Washington D.C. is teeming with shady people and those with the right connections get off scot-free. That is an extremely dangerous situation for the preservation of the republic and trust in her institutions.
It is in this sense that the guilty pleas and guilty verdicts are irrelevant. The larger message is that if you don’t fight the establishment, you can continue your operations and avoid jail time or harsh penalties. But if you do try to significantly change the status quo, be prepared to spend a lot of money on legal fees and general disruption, if not destruction to your way of life.
These cases are really about Trump, and those who helped him take on the establishment. The goal, of course, is to remove Trump from office some way, some how. As we’ll see below, some are even calling for impeachment over — at best — an unreported campaign contribution. As Mike Doran puts it, “The crime, if it was one, is minor. It pales in comparison to the crimes committed to prevent Trump’s election & to annul it after the fact, Those crimes threaten our democratic institutions, & their magnitude is compounded by the active efforts of the press to cover them up.”
5. Campaign Finance Violations Might Implicate Trump, But Might Not
The big excitement in the Resistance over Cohen’s guilty plea is that Cohen says he made illegal campaign contributions by paying two women for non-disclosure agreements. These payments were later reimbursed by Trump. Reimbursements for illegal campaign contributions would be a problem for Trump since he didn’t report them on his Federal Election Commission reports.
There are a few things to consider. One is whether non-disclosure agreements even are campaign contributions, a not-insignificant hurdle to overcome. If that burden is met, the question would also be how to handle the violation, including by fine or trial — the former being far more common and the latter being a not-insignificant difficulty when the candidate is now the president.
The most recent historical analog to this situation is the John Edwards case. The 2004 vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party was charged with taking and conspiring to take illegal contributions in excess of what the law allowed, and lying about it by not including the contributions on forms filed with the Federal Election Commission. The contributions went to his mistress Rielle Hunter, with whom he had a daughter.
The government claimed the payments were campaign contributions since he was in the middle of a campaign and trying to conceal his affair. Edwards, however, said the hush money was to conceal the affair from his wife. That case resulted in zero convictions — one acquittal and a deadlock on five other counts. The Justice Department never tried the five counts again. The Trump situation is different, dealing with reimbursed payments for non-disclosure agreements. If they were considered campaign contributions, it would be covered here.
A few months ago, Cohen said the payments had nothing to do with the campaign, claiming “people are mistaking this for a thing about the campaign. What I did defensively for my personal client, and my friend, is what attorneys do for their high-profile clients. I would have done it in 2006. I would have done it in 2011. I truly care about him and the family — more than just as an employee and an attorney.”
Now he claims he made these payments in concert with Trump for the “principal purpose of influencing an election,” as his attorney Lanny Davis put it. Perhaps he has evidence to support this claim, and can convince others that Trump wasn’t far more interested in the purposes of protecting his marriage, his reputation, his children, or his businesses — just the campaign.
Federal Election Commission experts disagree whether such reimbursed payments would meet the standard for a campaign law violation, for what it’s worth. And there are conflicting precedents in FEC law about what it would mean if contributions such as Cohen’s were part of a pattern that pre-dated the campaign. This could mean that if Trump ever paid for a non-disclosure agreement prior to the campaign, it would help his case. But as McCarthy noted months ago, the non-disclosure agreements — and not any silliness about Russia or obstruction — were Trump’s real legal threat.
There is also some disagreement about how an undisclosed non-disclosure agreement, even if held to be a campaign contribution, compares next to other campaign finance violations. The Obama campaign, for example, had to pay a $375,000 fine for concealing major donors’ contributions in the weeks before the 2008 election, among other reporting irregularities. No media called for Obama’s impeachment over these violations, major though they were for the campaign he led.
6. A Trap For The Resistance?
There is no question that Democrats, the media, and Never Trump are tremendously excited by yesterday’s guilty plea and conviction. NBC News’s Jonathan Allen wrote an article headlined, “A dark day for Trump. The darkest day for the presidency since Watergate.”
It included this passage elevating a campaign finance disclosure failure allegation to a high crime and misdemeanor: “In 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton was not accused of any underlying crimes as serious as those which Cohen suggests Trump may have committed.”
Resistance members took the cue to immediately call for impeachment on similar grounds:
Or as one Twitter wag put it:
2018: “told you we’d nail them on campaign finance and tax charges”
— Razor (@hale_razor) August 21, 2018
Now, maybe the critics are right, and the American people who were promised treasonous collusion with Russia will notice the lack of treasonous collusion with Russia but be moved to impeach by an alleged campaign finance violation or the knowledge that Trump associated with political operatives and lawyers who failed to pay taxes. Maybe they’re right.
But it’s also possible that this is yet another example of overreach from an elite establishment out of touch with the American electorate that put Trump in power and that the previous attempts to unseat President Trump from his rightful election will bear poorly on latter-day attempts. Democrats, Never Trump, and some media voices have been calling for impeachment for months, if not years. The details for impeachment are unimportant since the real crime seems to have been winning the 2016 election.
The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman says political consultants are expecting cries for impeachment will be central before the midterms. At least one Republican consultant says that’s an argument that motivates Republican voters and helps them understand the stakes of the election.
For many in the media, impeachment is — and always has been — a foregone conclusion. Then again, so was the election of Hillary Clinton.