The Most Damaging Thing That’s Happened to Trump

It wasn’t what Michael Cohen alleged in court, or the conviction of his campaign chair.

Leah Millis / Reuters

About the author: Benjamin Wittes is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the editor in chief of Lawfare, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

It is the morning after a devastating defeat. Smoke is still rising from the field. The rubble has not yet been cleared. And the commanders are having trouble facing just how hopeless their position has become. They no longer know on how many fronts they are fighting, how many separate enemies they face, or to what extent those enemies are cooperating—one might say “colluding”—with one another. They know they are surrounded. They know the next push could come at any moment—or be days, weeks, or months off. But they know neither what the attack will look like nor from which side it will come.

And so they talk about those 10 counts on which Paul Manafort was not convicted. They talk about a “two-tiered justice system” in which their people get prosecuted for offenses for which the other side has impunity. They talk about about how “every candidate” commits campaign-finance infractions. They talk about the so-called Steele dossier. They talk about how the charges all have nothing to do with their leader. The enemy isn’t fighting fair, they grumble, between suggestions that yesterday’s defeat wasn’t that big a deal or was actually a setback for the other side. Some of them even believe their own bullshit. And they thus convince themselves that their situation is not that different from that of other armies who have toughed it out and ultimately prevailed. The enemy won’t return. Or it will somehow prove manageable when it does, they say, like the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad as the Mongols approached in 1258. Or, like Dick Cheney, they convince themselves that they’re watching the death throes of the insurgency.

In their hearts, of course, most of them know it’s bullshit. But Trump world and its media ecosystem are an intellectual monoculture that demands this. There’s no room around this particular campfire for a plucky commander to speak the truth—which is that Birnam Wood has, indeed, come to Dunsinane while the mad king is busy tweeting about witch hunts.

In this monoculture, Republican members of Congress won’t go to the president and frankly tell him how bad his position really is. I sincerely doubt that his lawyers have done so, either. Donald Trump knows that he can count on nobody. He can’t count on his White House counsel not to slip away from his post and spend 30 hours with the other side—taking advantage of the legal team’s decision not to assert privileges to make sure that Robert Mueller knows his side of the story. He can’t count on his staff not to text Maggie Haberman even while walking out of his office. He can’t count on his personal lawyer not to tape him and then defect to the other side and implicate him in the crimes to which he pleads guilty. He demands absolute loyalty from his subordinates, but he can count on none at all from any of them.

It’s easy to understand why nobody is willing to approach the mad king and describe honestly the situation he faces—indeed, why Fox News can’t even deal candidly with its viewership on the subject: The situation is dire and it is worsening, and saying so would require very tough choices.

The president is facing at least three separate serious investigations, each moving forward at its own inexorable pace. The Paul Manafort conviction yesterday was the latest move forward in the core Russia probe, though the specific charges against Manafort don’t deal with l’affaire Russe itself. Mueller now has Manafort—the president’s campaign chair and a man with extensive ties both to the former Ukrainian government and to Russian oligarchs—convicted on serious criminal conduct. He also has another trial of Manafort coming up next month. This is a man who was in the room for the Trump Tower meeting and who is now facing a long period of time in prison. The prosecutor already had a lot of leverage over him. He now has a lot more.

The Manafort case is not the only movement on the core Russia matter. The Michael Cohen plea also promises potential answers on important questions. Cohen, after all, was a key figure in the negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow, and he played a role in any number of other Russia-related incidents. Mueller also appears to be building a case against Roger Stone. The president can tweet “No Collusion” all he wants, and his sycophants can scoff all they like about the Russia-less nature of the charges yesterday, but if you were honestly advising Trump as to his situation, you couldn’t be blithe. That’s why nobody is.

Nor could you be blithe about the obstruction-of-justice investigation, which may be integrated with the Russia probe to some degree but also appears to be distinct in important respects. When Mueller listed the areas he wants to discuss with Trump, obstruction issues dominated the list. These are questions that touch the president’s personal behavior intimately. And the president’s legal team, almost unfathomably, was caught flat-footed by the scope and extent of White House Counsel Don McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller. For all of Rudy Giuliani’s bluster, the Trump defense team appears to have relatively little sense of where this investigation stands or what to expect from it—save that they seem to expect some kind of damaging report at some point and don’t expect Mueller to indict the president.

And now there’s the Cohen investigation. The most damaging thing that happened yesterday to Trump was not that his former lawyer alleged under oath that Trump had directed him in the commission of crimes. It was that the United States Department of Justice allowed him to enter a guilty plea whose factual basis was that Trump had directed him in the commission of a crime. That is to say that the significance of the Cohen plea is not merely that Cohen alleges that Trump had him arrange to pay hush money to a porn star and a model in a specific effort to influence the election with illegal corporate contributions. It’s that the Justice Department believes this allegation to be true and is willing to proceed criminally against Cohen on that basis. That’s ominous for both Trump personally and for his campaign. What’s more, this particular front in the war is not under Mueller, who spun it off to the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. This is not, in other words, a problem Trump can fire his way out of. The SDNY has a lot more than 17 prosecutors; and whether they are angry or not, Democrats or not, they are not going away.

The situation gets worse for the president—because nobody, including him, has much idea when the next blow is coming or along which of these fronts. On any given day, we could see a subpoena for the president’s grand-jury testimony, which would provoke major litigation, assuming the president decides not to accede to it. At any point—perhaps today, perhaps a week from now, perhaps after the midterm elections—Mueller’s grand jury could issue its next indictments, likely involving people on this side of the Atlantic. And, of course, nobody knows how quickly, if at all, the Southern District might choose to move against other Trump-world figures who are mentioned in yesterday’s Cohen plea filings or what they might seek to do with Cohen’s allegations against Trump himself.

There’s one more reason why nobody will tell the mad king the hopeless truth that he’s surrounded, outmanned, outgunned, and that there’s no telling from where or when the next blow will come: The king is mad and doesn’t want to hear it. And his courtiers, seeking his favor, have either to convince themselves or play along with it. They do this both in talks with him privately and in their public utterances—to show loyalty, or because they are well paid to do so.

And thus we wait.