The double whammy of yesterday’s guilty verdict in the case of Paul Manafort and guilty plea in that of Michael Cohen—President Trump’s former campaign manager and personal attorney, respectively—must have stunned the White House, and certainly elated the president’s critics, who are busy filing their teeth in preparation for an impeachment case. But as the nation moves into untrodden constitutional territory, with demands that Trump be indicted for political corruption, it’s worth examining the balance of power in the U.S. today, and the extent to which the president—frequently accused of unprecedented abuse of executive authority—may actually be more respectful of legal procedure and norms than his critics charge.
While the Mueller investigation moves laboriously toward its ostensible focus—Russian meddling in the 2016 election—it has been blazingly fast in racking up convictions and guilty pleas on what appear to be less-than-urgent tax-fraud cases. Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, was indicted, tried, and convicted for crimes pertaining to his political-consultancy business in Ukraine. No link was alleged between these activities and Trump; it was an ancillary case that, as the judge observed early on, was part of an effort to put pressure on the president. Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, pled guilty to a slew of financial-related crimes. He confessed, among other felonies, to having made $30,000 by brokering the sale of an expensive piece of luggage, and failing to report this income. The kicker in Cohen’s confession was the last count, where he appears to implicate Trump in an effort to influence the 2016 election; the president directed him, he claims, to make “an excessive campaign contribution” to buy silence from women with whom Trump had had sexual relationships with in the past. Cohen, facing 65 years in prison, appears responsive to the prosecutorial squeeze play, and is willing to testify to Trump’s involvement in nefarious doings.
Manafort and Cohen are unsavory characters, and it is no great testament to Trump’s judgment that he associated with them. By any reasonable measure, it appears that they committed financial fraud and evaded paying their taxes. But it is also true that the full weight of federal law enforcement fell on them only because of their association with the president, and that—excepting the hush-money claim—none of the crimes they have been found guilty of had anything to do with Trump.
This is why the president keeps talking about “witch hunts,” and why his supporters dismiss the prosecutions of Manafort and Cohen as political. The Mueller investigation has, as many observers suspected it would, wandered from its mission, and appears to be as preoccupied with punishing Trump associates as it is with investigating Russian involvement in the election. Mueller’s office now operates as a virtual fourth branch of government, and it is hard to imagine its dissolution, regardless of what it learns about Russian electoral involvement.
Meantime, President Trump is depicted as a monstrous usurper who seeks to destroy American democracy and impose authoritarian rule. John McNeill of Georgetown University awards Trump “26 out of 44 Benitos” on his scale of fascist tendencies, and public figures from Cher to Abraham Foxman have labeled Trump “Hitler.” Leftist documentarian Michael Moore insists that Trump will never give up power peacefully because he believes that his election entitles him to a lifetime office, and so he must be forced out; and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg says that Trump “certainly would really like to” round up people and murder them.
These Trump critics are trying to link the president with a well-known historical fact: tyrants often wage war on their rivals under the guise of rooting out corruption. When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia, he moved judicially against his enemies, who were imprisoned on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the richest men in Russia, had their money seized, were jailed for more than a decade, and were named “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International when it became clear that their financial crimes were a pretext for political prosecution. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced an anti-corruption campaign and rounded up dozens of Saudi elites—including his cousins—in a hotel, reportedly having them beaten until they disgorged billions of dollars into the treasury.
But if victorious dictators typically wage such campaigns to punish their foes, why is it that Trump’s associates—and not the president’s enemies—are the ones facing life in prison for tax fraud? The same president accused of undermining democracy, of incipient authoritarianism, and of conducting Stalinist purges because he removed a former official’s security clearance complains haplessly on Twitter that he can’t control his own staff, and makes sarcastic, Borscht Belt-style jokes about what a terrible lawyer he has. If, as his critics allege, Trump really aspires to be a ruthless dictator, he isn’t doing a very good job at it.
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