It is hard to imagine a historical parallel to the one-two blows that landed flush on the jaw of President Donald Trump Tuesday afternoon, with the nearly simultaneous announcements of Paul Manafort's convictions and Michael Cohen's guilty pleas.
Taken together, the developments represent a thunderous rebuttal by the criminal justice system on behalf of the rule of law and against the President's attempts to demonize the Department of Justice and FBI.
Both proceedings pose serious legal trouble for the President, but the Cohen plea is the graver and more immediate risk. It put a target directly on the President's back.
Cohen was charged with a series of crimes, including some of the same sort of bank fraud that ensnared Manafort. But it will be counts seven and eight that keep Trump and his lawyers up for many nights.
The conduct laid out in those counts deals directly with Trump's efforts to stop Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal from speaking about their alleged affairs with him. Indeed, Trump's involvement is partly spelled out in the indictment itself, even though the President was not named, following Justice Department policy.
If, as Cohen says, Trump not only knew about but directed Cohen's conduct, it means that the President would have been nothing less than a co-conspirator in a federal crime. And this crime, far from concerning long past financial misdeeds, would be a felony that then-candidate Trump committed precisely in order to secure election. It is hard to think of a more prototypical high crime or misdemeanor.
More importantly, the Cohen guilty plea anticipates a process, which already has begun, in which Cohen tells what he knows about those crimes, and probably others, to investigators working for the special counsel Robert Mueller, as well as to prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, where the case is pending.
Typically a criminal defendant would already have provided full information to the government before entering a plea. That didn't happen here. It appears as if the Southern District was dissatisfied with the progress of talks and ready to bring charges last week, prompting Cohen to move quickly into an open-book posture.
SDNY, for its part, is able to eliminate any concern about bringing charges too close to an election. And given the likely credibility and trust between SDNY and Cohen's excellent lawyer, Guy Petrillo, a former Criminal Division chief in that office, the parties probably felt sufficiently comfortable with entering the plea now and continuing the cooperation.
The eventual sentence Cohen gets for the crimes to which he pleaded guilty today -- which without cooperation looks to be in the six to eight year range, plenty long for the father of school-age children -- will depend on the information he is able to provide.
And, of course, since the charges are pending in New York, and not with the Mueller probe, Trump is essentially powerless to try to fire his way out of the mess. No matter what action he takes against Mueller, the case against Cohen remains.
He could pardon Cohen, a move probably made much more politically difficult by the conviction of Manafort; it seems quite a stretch to think that he would pardon both. But even a pardon of Cohen will likely not keep Cohen's information about Trump's involvement from coming to light, once he provides it to the federal prosecutors.
That is because he can be immunized by state authorities if they bring charges against him (i.e. they could promise not to prosecute him), and without the possibility of criminal liability, he would lose Fifth Amendment protections and could be compelled to testify. And any lies he might tell in that testimony -- i.e any material variations from the account he provides to the SDNY -- would expose him to perjury.
Deputy US Attorney Robert Khuzami ended his remarks announcing Cohen pleas with an unusual paean to the rule of law and the notion that the criminal justice system stands at the ready to prosecute wrongdoers without fear of favor.
The immediate subject of the remarks was Cohen, but it was a barely concealed reference to the President of the United States, and his offensive campaign to put himself above the law and demonize the criminal justice system. History may mark today as the day that campaign began to crumble.
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