President Donald Trump has avoided mentioning the legal troubles of two former close associates during the opening of a campaign rally in West Virginia. Instead, he spoke about the Russia “witch hunt” and immigration. (Aug. 21)
The pattern of the Trump presidency has been this: jaw-dropping news, which becomes the subject of breathless analysis, which brings predictions of a fundamental shift in the body politic, which doesn’t happen and is soon supplanted by the next piece of jaw-dropping news.
This time seems different. Really.
What’s different is the developments that rattled the capital and its most famous resident Tuesday can’t be swayed by smart spin or distracted by the rage of the Twitterverse. The astounding loyalty of the president’s political base, which is likely to hold, is irrelevant.
Now Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation has won its first trial, convicting former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of financial fraud. The verdict came minutes after Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty, implicating Trump in violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money during the 2016 campaign.
There will be more courtroom dramas ahead.
The sense of accelerating peril around Trump rivals the most disruptive days of the scandals of his predecessors – of the turning points in the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation, and in the Monica Lewinsky affair that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Even some of the president’s allies worry that events are spiraling in ways that are impossible to predict and that could provoke a presidential response that could be impossible to control. A decision by Trump to pardon Manafort (whom he praised on Twitter Wednesday for refusing to “break”) or to fire Mueller would create a whole new category of calamity.
Consider the implications of the defense being offered by the president and those on his side.
“This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump told reporters at the White House, saying the Manafort verdict “doesn’t involve me.”
And on Capitol Hill, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership, struck a similar note.
“Well, I haven’t been able to look at all the details, but I would note that none of this has anything to do with the Russian collusion or meddling in the election,” he said.
That’s true. The jail time that Manafort and Cohen face aren’t for crimes involving helping Moscow meddle in America’s election. But Trump now finds himself facing more traditional allegations, that he broke the law trying to cover up two extramarital affairs when they threatened to become political threats.
And the investigations into possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice are continuing. Some of the big decisions are expected to be made soon – by Trump on whether to voluntarily answer Mueller’s questions, and by Mueller on whether to subpoena the president if he doesn’t.
Voters’ attitudes toward Trump are sufficiently hardened that they may not budge now. His supporters typically cite the president’s combative attitude and the robust economy of his tenure as reasons to back him, not their faith in his personal behavior.
But these latest furors could nonetheless affect the midterm elections, now just 76 days away – not by changing the ballots voters cast but by determining whether they bother to cast them. Republicans who would never consider voting for a Democratic candidate may be discouraged enough by the taint of scandal to just stay home. Democratic-leaning voters who don’t usually bother to vote, especially in midterm elections, may feel energized to go the polls.
Nonpartisan analysts now rate a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives as likely, though not assured. That outcome would give Democrats the power to hold hearings, launch investigations, issue subpoenas – and impeach the president.
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