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.
As bad news as this may be for the president, it also raises the question: Just how far in the tank were other Trump-happy media executives? Was Roger Ailes, for instance, implicated in any Trump/Manafort/Cohen funny-money scheme? Was there similar “coordination” between Team Trump and any individuals at Fox on the Flynn/Comey/Russia investigation, sufficiently systematic to cross the line from journalism into conspiracy to obstruct justice? It’s not an outrageous question, especially considering the close relationship between Trump, Cohen, and Sean Hannity. If I were Rupert Murdoch or his kids, I’d be nervous about possible surprises lurking in Hannity’s e-mail box.
While the next legal move is Mueller’s, the next political moves can’t wait for his report. The landscape is already so dramatically altered by Tuesday’s courtroom action. Events will now come quickly; activists and office holders need to be prepared. Specifically:
Draft articles of impeachment. Not every Democratic member of Congress or candidate needs to be on the impeachment train just yet. The caution of candidates in swing states is understandable. But Cohen’s plea makes clear that it’s time for Democrats and never-Trump Republicans to stop being afraid of the Constitution. Leading constitutional scholars such as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe already suggest that Cohen’s plea meets the high-crimes-and-misdemeanors standard. Revelations implicating Trump and his inner circle are almost certain to accelerate, whether from Mueller’s report, Manafort’s second trial in Washington, or newly cooperating witnesses like Pecker. Congress needs to be ready, with articles of impeachment and congressional inquiries into White House malfeasance already under way.
Slow down the Kavanaugh confirmation. In a little over an hour on Tuesday, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s law-journal musings on whether a president should be protected from investigation have gone from hypothetical to shockingly pertinent. That very issue is almost certain to come before the Supreme Court in the next 12 months. And Kavanaugh’s wildly expansive view of presidential executive power now has immediate bearing on the most scandal-drenched administration in American history. The Cohen and Manafort cases—and the president’s repeated attempts to muzzle the Justice Department—now make it critical that Kavanaugh’s real-world application of those views when he worked in the George W. Bush White House be fully and openly aired. Democrats—along with any Republican senator wanting to put some distance between herself and a collapsing presidency (paging Susan Collins)—needs to press anew for the release of Kavanaugh’s full archive, and—with Merrick Garland’s sidetracked nomination as immediate precedent—delay confirmation until after the fall
Fight for a Democratic House. Period. Never has there been so much at stake in a midterm election. Thanks to a Republican leadership in full retreat from their responsibilities, never has so much rested on the next Congress’s ability to hold the president to account. A post-November Democratic majority is the one wall that is worth building.
In the wake of Tuesday, Robert Mueller and the New York US Attorney’s office will continue down their methodical, principled path. But the special Counsel can’t solve what is at bottom a political problem for the country. However many of the president’s associates go to jail, Donald Trump will remain in office until the country musters the moral clarity of a pro-Trump juror who, MAGA hat in her car, could still follow the evidence.