THE New York Times has called it “the worst day” in Donald Trump’s 577-day presidency. CNN has called it “the worst hour.” In two US courtrooms 200 miles apart—one in Manhattan, New York, the other in Alexandria, Va.,—on Tuesday, August 21, President Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to multiple charges of criminal wrongdoing during Trump’s campaign, which momentarily appear to overshadow the alleged Russian intervention in favor of Trump, currently being investigated by special legal counsel Robert Mueller 3rd.
The data that follows is almost entirely bodily lifted from the US press, notably the NY Times, which is the world’s number one newspaper of record.
Cohen pleads guilty
According to the reports, Cohen agreed to a plea deal with the Southern District of New York in which he admitted guilt on eight charges, and acknowledged making “hush” payments to Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, a porno star, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, both alleging affairs with Trump, in order to cover up a potential sexual scandal that could affect Trump’s rising candidacy, at the “direction” of, and in “coordination” with a “candidate for federal office.” Trump is not named, but no one thinks the “candidate’ refers to anybody else.
Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence, and the former Playboy “bunny” $150,000 through American Media, Inc., owner of the tabloid National Enquirer, which bought the rights to her story in order to kill it rather than give it maximum publicity. Cohen also pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion for concealing more than $4 million in personal income from 2012 to 2016, and one count of bank fraud, for failing to disclose $14 million in debts in an application for a $500,000 home equity line of credit, from which he sourced the payment to Stormy Daniels.
He also pleaded guilty of making an excessive campaign contribution and causing an unlawful corporate contribution during the 2016 election cycle. Cohen’s plea was announced by deputy US attorney Robert Khuzami, along with senior officials of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service.
Prosecutors maintained that the $130,000 payment to Daniels was effectively a straight donation to Trump’s campaign because by securing her silence, it improved his chances at the polls. This constituted, according to them, a violation of the 2016 campaign finance law prohibition against donations of more than $2,700 in a general election.
Cohen is expected to be sentenced on December 12 before Judge William H. Pawley 3rd. In principle, he faces 65 years in prison, but the plea agreement allows for a far more lenient sentence. The government calculates a period of 51 to 63 months, while the defense calculates a period of 46 to 57 months. The probation department will propose the final guidelines, but the sentence will be ultimately decided by Judge Pawley.
Manafort found guilty
In Alexandria, Manafort pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax and bank fraud. The jury could not agree on a verdict on 10 other charges, prompting the presiding judge to declare a mistrial on the charges. Mueller, who is investigating allegations of Russian interference in the US elections to help Trump—a charge vehemently denied by Trump and the Russian government—had built a case against Manafort, to show that he had salted away millions of dollars in foreign accounts to evade taxes, and lied to banks to obtain millions of dollars in loans. Trump tweeted Manafort to say he was a “good man.”
Trump’s lawyer Rudi Guiliani, former mayor of New York City, said “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government charges against Mr. Cohen.” Even if there were, Trump could count on the fact that a sitting president could be impeached but not indicted of any crime until he is impeached.
Yet most of those who have commented on the two US court decisions could hardly imagine Trump having an easier time than before the cases against Cohen and Manafort went south. Their impact on his presidency would not be easy to contain, even if Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the last US election, were to prosper no further. Analysts expect them to considerably weaken Trump’s presidency, as he faces a critical mid-term election this November, in which all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 Senate seats will be contested.
Worse than Watergate
Not since the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974 has the US seen anything like it. John Dean, a former White House counsel and key witness in the Watergate scandal, is among those who immediately recognized the appalling similarity between what’s happening and Watergate. Dean was one of those who had aided Nixon in covering up the Watergate break-in and burglaries, but eventually testified against the disgraced president in exchange for a lighter sentence.
In a story in The Independent, Dean points out that Cohen has called Trump a “criminal,” involved in a “campaign conspiracy,” not much different from the Watergate criminal conspiracy. Veteran journalist Carl Bernstein who, together with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, provided much of the hard reporting on Watergate, said “this is worse than Watergate.” Some politicians on Capitol Hill seemed to share the analysis; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat member of the Senate judiciary committee, said the US was now in a “Watergate moment.”
Will they impeach Trump?
How will this end for Trump? This is the end-question, but the story is just beginning. Will he get impeached or what? Nobody can tell.
In 1974, Nixon escaped impeachment by resigning. But in December 1998, Bill Clinton, 42nd US president, became the second US president to get impeached after Andrew Johnson in 1868. There were two charges against Clinton: perjury and obstruction of justice.
The first arose from a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones, a state employee in Arkansas where Clinton had served as governor, but the focus of public and media attention was more on his alleged sexual encounters inside the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
The Senate needed 67 votes to convict Clinton. Only 50 of the 55 Republican senators voted against him on obstruction of justice; 45 on perjury. No Democratic senator voted against the Democratic president on any of the charges.
The experts are careful
Whether or not the Democrats will ultimately move to impeach Trump no reputed expert appears willing to stake their reputation as of now.
How would Congress look like in terms of its Democratic and Republican membership after the November elections? That would be a major consideration.
Would Cohen be willing to inflict more damage on Trump, by acting as a key witness in an impeachment trial against the President?
Would an impeachment proceeding succeed?
Would the Democrats want a President Mike Pence in place of Mr. Trump?
These are just some of the questions.
No preferred options
I have no preferred options for the American people. I have close friends and relatives in America with conflicting political loyalties, and I wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle. But their unflinching resolve to fight for the rule of law and the primacy of their democratic institutions, no matter the cost to their personal lives, is what I should like us to celebrate at this moment. It is this that makes me ask, without naively sounding like a colonial or a serf – when can we ever begin to behave like these people? Even their criminals know when to admit they have committed a crime and must begin paying for it.
Michael Cohen pleaded guilty because he was guilty, and it was his duty to protect his family and friends and the rest of society from the effects of his crimes. Paul Manafort was found guilty and accepted the jury’s verdict without any defiance, knowing his duty to the truth and to society. Can you imagine two Mindanaoans as powerful as these two and as close to President Rodrigo Duterte as their American counterparts were once close to Trump, pleading guilty, or being found guilty, of anything at all?
Unthinkable. If they were accused (in the press) of extrajudicial killing or smuggling rice, sugar, steel bars, humans or human parts, or shabu, they might never be formally charged at all. You would see them being received in royal audience in Malacañang and being absolved of any wrongdoing in the august presence of the ubiquitous Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go. The law of the strong will have to prevail always over the strength of the law.
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