22 August 2018

Trump, Cohen and Manafort: The end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end


It is a rare morning when I wake to find Donald Trump and Winston Churchill cohabiting in the same thought.

It is not a pleasant way to begin the day, but this is what you get for reading last night’s news before going to bed. The confession of Michael Cohen and the conviction of Paul Manafort, followed by the triumphant reaction of the media and the defiant reaction of Donald Trump, all conjure Churchillian reflections, none of them flattering to the parties concerned.

Most of the media and, we can presume, special prosecutor Robert Mueller too, see a distinct tightening of the legal net around Donald Trump. For them, the fall of Cohen and Manafort marks the beginning of the end. But I suspect that we are seeing only the end of the beginning. The polls already suggested that the first phase of Trump’s presidency was set to end in November, when the Republicans looked likely to lose the House of Representatives. The parade of smut, greed and criminality at the court of Emperor Donald makes that result a racing cert.

Cohen, for those who, hoping to escape the media barrage of sleaze and speculation, spent the last few days with a blanket over their heads and their fingers in their ears, used to be a Trump Organization lawyer. On Tuesday, he confessed in court that his duties in support of Trump’s run for the presidency included paying hush money totalling $280,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

We shall leave aside the question of whether these transactions represent the principles of value and pricing that Trump prescribes in The Art of the Deal. Cohen himself copped a deal for dumping Trump; this confession, and his admission to a list of bank and business fraud charges running into the millions, should keep his time in the big house down to between 46 and 63 months. For now, the big question is whether the implications of Cohen’s statement will stick to Trump.

JFK could rely on the women not to talk and the press not to ask. Trump had to pay the women off because the press won’t stop asking. The payments, Cohen said, were made “in co-ordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office”. Cohen claims, plausibly, to have acted “at the request of the candidate”, and “for the purposes of influencing the election”. It is illegal to do this, even in America.

Not that Trump will be indicted anytime soon. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has confirmed that a sitting president cannot be indicted in a criminal case. Trump is above the law, at least for now. Afterwards is another matter, and it remains a long way off.

Manafort’s conviction is a matter of what, in the good old days of Barack Obama, used to be called “atmospherics”. Those who have spent the last weeks on a remote Pacific island, cutting down cellphone masts with a sharpened rock so that they can escape the news, will be astounded to learn that the man who ran Trump’s election campaign for three months, and who had circulated in the shark tank that is Trumpworld for years, was convicted on Tuesday of a rich variety of frauds.

This is the kind of person that Trump attracts, and who Trump seems to be attracted to. The prosecutors alleged that Manafort received $60m from Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Putin president of Ukraine, for consulting and lobbying on Yanukovich’s behalf in the United States and elsewhere, but avoided paying tax on it by using shell companies and foreign accounts. When Yanukovich lost power in 2014, Manafort lied to banks in order to obtain more money.

Manafort’s manifold improprieties have nothing directly to do with Donald Trump. Clearly a man of considerable initiative and no scruple, Manafort managed to contrive the terms of his own destruction off his own bat. In September, he faces charges of failing to register as a foreign agent. Yet Trump calls him “a good man”.

If there are still voters who feel neutral about Trump, all this will surely damage the Republicans in November’s midterms. The midterms already presented a choice between endorsing the Trump economy or condemning the Trump personality.

Even before yesterday’s double blow to the White House, the polls weren’t exactly promising about the Republicans’ chances of holding onto the House of Representatives. The stink of corruption may well dissuade swing voters who supported Trump in 2016 from turning out; it might even encourage some of them to turn out so that they can repent in the privacy of the voting booth.

But it’s too early to expect the Republicans to lose the Senate too. The maths remain in their favour, and Americans like divided government. We can expect a divided, dysfunctional Congress from November — an accurate and democratically functional reflection of a divided, dysfunctional society. And a Republican Senate means that an attempt to impeach Trump will go nowhere, loudly and slowly.

The Mueller enquiry is, however, making loud albeit slow progress. Mueller has circled around Trump, charged more than 30 people with financial crimes, and secured several guilty pleas. The Cohen confession won’t directly further Mueller’s investigation, but it does bolster him as he resists pressure from the White House and Republicans in Congress to end his enquiry.

Cohen was pursued by prosecutors in New York, and Mueller has already said that Cohen and campaign finance violation fall outside of his purview. Manafort was caught in Muellers probe, but his malfeasance wasn’t related to the 2016 election. Still, Cohen’s surrender and Manafort’s conviction confirm the impression that, as fish swim in the sea, Trump moves too comfortably among criminals.

It’s also a rare morning when I wake up and find myself in agreement with Nancy Pelosi, but Pelosi is right in saying that Manafort’s conviction is “further proof that Special Counsel Mueller’s team and prosecutors in New York are conducting thorough and professional investigations”. The system is working, and it is exposing evidence of massive financial malfeasance among Trump’s associates.

Trump calls the Mueller probe a “witch hunt”, and says that it’s “worse” than the FBI’s pursuit of Al Capone. It’s true that Capone, though he was a killer, a pimp and a drug dealer, never stooped to political consultancy and lobbying. Trump, as he often does, may be letting out the truth under the cover of a lie. Capone spent his last years behind bars for tax crimes.

Read Adam Davidson’s New Yorker investigation of the Trump Organization’s dealings in Baku, in which Trump’s people dealt with corrupt officials with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Or read Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin, which alleges the Trump Organization sold luxury apartments in Trump Tower to Russians bearing suitcases of cash — instances of inadvertent money-laundering, on a scale that might interest the IRS.

We awake in a bizarre and increasingly nightmarish country. The president pays off porn actresses, but this can hardly be said to have influenced the election, as everyone already knew that he was a sleazeball. The president associates with crooks, but everyone already knew that too. And somehow it all seems eminently plausible. A system that outsourced its economy produces a president who outsources his sex life.

While this week marks the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end may be further away than we think. The more evidence we have of the Trump Organization’s dubious dealings, the closer 2020 and the prospect of Trump losing his immunity get. The greater the possibility of Trump spending his last years in court, the greater his incentive to stay in office. The more evidence we have of his dubious finances, the likelier Trump 2020 becomes.

I would say, “Wake me up when it’s over,” but when it’s over, there is a distinct possibility that we’ll awake to the novel sight of a US president doing time behind bars. Or am I dreaming?

Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.