BOOM: Whatever combination of prosecutorial guile and sheer chance made it happen, that gripping, breathless, split-screen hour on Tuesday—reality TV elevated to the level of constitutional drama—was a historic turning point. BOOM: The president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, stand as convicted federal felons, awaiting multiyear prison terms that can be mitigated only by their further cooperation with prosecutors. BOOM: The president himself—“Individual-1” in Cohen’s plea agreement—is an unindicted co-conspirator in two felony violations of federal campaign law, described by Cohen as directing and coordinating hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and colluding with the National Enquirer to shut down damaging news. BOOM: Republican congressional candidates in close races now distance themselves from the president and declare that “no one is above the law,” unthinkable just a few days earlier. BOOM: The picture emerging from two federal courthouses is of the Trump presidential operation, from his first escalator ride onward, as an ongoing criminal enterprise, run by lawless grifters for their own enrichment.
One of the most valuable perspectives on Tuesday’s head-spinning events came not from a politician or pundit but from a self-described Trump voter: Paula Duncan, one of the jurors in Manafort’s trial in Alexandria. Interviewed by Fox News, Duncan spoke about her skepticism regarding the prosecutors’ motives, and the MAGA hat she carried proudly on the back seat of her car each day on the way to court. But she also described herself as a citizen with a job to do: “Finding Mr. Manafort guilty was hard for me. I wanted him to be innocent, I really wanted him to be innocent, but he wasn’t.… That’s the part of a juror, you have to have due diligence and deliberate and look at the evidence and come up with an informed and intelligent decision, which I did.”
Duncan still considers herself pro-Trump, but her simple statement was one citizen’s reassertion of national sanity and patriotic duty, and a calm rebuke to the rest of the country. If this Trump voter’s willingness to follow the evidence shook her, it also challenges reporters and political analysts who would lump Paula Duncan into an unchanging Trump “base”: as if his 2016 electorate were a fixed, unified, and immovable political collective. Here’s the reality: If a single pro-Trump juror in Virginia can argue with herself, overcome her own skepticism toward prosecutors, and send Paul Manafort to jail, it’s a safe bet that plenty of other Trump voters will sooner or later follow the evidence too. When that happens, the awesome specter of the Trump faction, which has kept congressional Republicans in line and swing-state Democrats in fear, will turn out to be a chimera, to the shame of strategists in both parties.
Legally, of course, Cohen’s plea deal, placing the “candidate” as the director of a payoff scheme, was an immediate disaster for the White House. But it also raises (or should raise) uncomfortable questions about the role of right-wing media. Cohen implicated the Enquirer and its publisher, David Pecker, in the conspiracy to shut down Daniels’s and McDougal’s stories weeks ahead of the 2016 election. Prosecutors described the Enquirer as functioning as a full-service research department for the Trump campaign, in direct coordination with the candidate and his aides, defining the line where the First Amendment ends and campaign-finance law begins. And now Pecker himself has been granted immunity by prosecutors, virtually assuring the revelation of further damaging details about the president’s criminal machinations.