Michael Cohen’s guilty plea this week, on charges including campaign-finance violations, brought the investigations directly to the president. It has also, however, supplied Donald Trump and his allies with new material with which to cry “witch hunt.” Having argued all along that the investigations are political in character, they point now to strained legal claims focused on Trump’s sexual history. Distasteful, yes, they say; but it has “nothing to do with Russia,” and the charge’s evident purpose is to sully the president and to find some basis on which to bring him down.
In the days ahead, that message will surely also include references to the juror who voted to convict Paul Manafort, but told Fox News that she believed that the prosecutors aim was to flip Manafort for “dirt” on Trump. In this way, Trump will attempt to situate himself squarely in the tradition of other subjects of public-corruption prosecutions who, facing legal and political ruin, blame high political intrigue and low motive.
This defense only succeeds to the extent that it breaks into smaller pieces the larger story of the president’s legal troubles, systematically distorting and misrepresenting each element to make the whole seem less than the sum of its parts. So Trump maintained that former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI, had to go only because he lied to the vice president, and otherwise was blameless for the dealings with the Russians about which he lied. He dismissed his former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who lied to investigators about his contacts with Russians, as a “low-level volunteer.” His answer to the Cohen plea is that his former lawyer and friend is a liar, not to be trusted. He has depicted Manafort as “brave,” a distinguished member of the Republican consulting community who only landed in the sights of prosecutors because of his late and brief ties to Trump and his refusal to “break” under the threat of jail time.