Tuesday’s news had an almost surreal quality, like something out of a political thriller: While President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud, his former attorney Michael Cohen told a federal court that the commander in chief had ordered him to violate campaign-finance laws by paying hush money to at least two women with whom the president had affairs.
But as strange as it sounds, this saga is still in its early stages.
“We haven’t been in this territory very often,” John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University and a former associate counsel in the Iran-Contra affair, told me. “I think the naming of Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate investigation is the parallel, or the previous analogous event.”
The turbulent pace of the news cycle in the Trump era has habituated political observers to dramatic developments. But even by recent standards, Tuesday’s events represent a dramatic escalation of legal peril for the president and his allies. Trump’s former campaign chair, his former deputy campaign chair, his former national-security adviser, and his former attorney have all been implicated in federal crimes. That fact is already remarkable, even before considering that the Cohen plea deal suggests that list is likely to grow, and that the president has few options to shield himself that would not fatally undermine democratic governance and the rule of law.