“Today is the first day I actually thought Donald Trump might not finish his term in office,” said the legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin on CNN last Thursday.
“This is the beginning of the end for Trump,” declared Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general, on MSNBC.
“The deal may be among the biggest news in the nearly 18-month investigation,” wrote Barry Berke, Noah Bookbinder, and Norman Eisen in The New York Times.
It happens this way every time: A big news event in the Trump-Russia investigation takes place, and commentators talk about it as though a house of cards were collapsing or a row of dominoes were falling. Each time, it’s the beginning of the end. Each indictment or plea is the “big one.” And then those expectations are disappointed. The sun rises the next day—in the east, as expected—and it sets in the west, as it did the day before. The Trump presidency endures.
This time it was the new plea deal from Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. On Thursday, Cohen pleaded guilty to one count of lying to Congress, related to how long into the 2016 campaign he pursued building Trump Tower Moscow—and who exactly was aware of his efforts. In the surprise criminal information that formed the basis of his plea, Cohen admitted that, although he had told Congress the project had ended in January 2016, in advance of the Iowa caucus, planning for the project continued well into June 2016. What’s more, a person named in the criminal information as “Individual 1” but identifiable as Trump, along with his family members and his campaign officials, were briefed on Cohen’s efforts along the way. Additionally, Cohen was in contact with senior Russian officials about the matter.
The admission that the Trump Organization was working secretly—colluding, one might say—with the Russian government on a business deal late into the campaign and that Trump knew about this activity led many observers, including those quoted above, to treat this latest plea as the turning point for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
But the underlying metaphors are wrong. There is no sudden bend in the path of the investigation. There is no house of cards. The dominoes will not fall if gently tipped. The administration is not going to come crashing down in response to any single day’s events. The architecture of Trump’s power is more robust than that.
We need to stop thinking of it as a fragile structure waiting for the right poke to fall in on itself. Think instead of the myriad investigations and legal proceedings surrounding the president as a multi-front siege on a walled city that is, in fact, relatively well fortified.
Siege warfare is not a matter of striking precisely the correct blow at the correct moment at a particular stone in the wall. It is a campaign of degradation over a substantial period of time. While those inside the fortified city may rely only on the strength of their walls and their stored resources, the attackers can take their time. Volleys of projectiles—arrows or trebuchets—pepper the city walls and those atop them, while the strength of the defending army diminishes as soldiers slip away and food dwindles. Moreover, active conflict is an episodic, not a constant, feature of siege warfare; the enemy army can encamp outside the walled city and blockade it without firing a shot. Over time, the walls and defending forces become degraded to such a degree that the invaders are able to scale the walls and sack the city.
No, Mueller and his forces are not a Mongol horde, but the Trump White House is very much under siege.
Mueller’s army isn’t the only force encircling Trump’s fortress, but it is the largest and most active force, and it actually has several distinct encampments. One contingent of Mueller’s forces is charged with investigating efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election. In this capacity, the special counsel’s office has indicted individuals associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that has spread disinformation and propaganda on social media. His office also indicted 13 members of the Russian military intelligence organization, the GRU, in connection with deliberately hacking into the Democratic National Committee server and passing the fruits of that hack to WikiLeaks “to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The immediate threat this particular force poses to the castle right now involves its evident interest in Roger Stone and the group of people around him. The GRU indictment does not name Stone, but he has publicly admitted that he is the person referred to in the indictment “who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” and who corresponded with a fake hacktivist persona used by the Russians.
This front of the siege has become hot in recent months and will likely remain an area of intense activity over the coming weeks. Recently, Jerome Corsi publicly shared a draft statement of offense in connection with a plea agreement offered him by the special counsel’s office. The document details contact between Corsi and an individual reported to be Stone regarding WikiLeaks’ planned release of the hacked material. Moreover, in the coming weeks, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is expected to rule on whether Andrew Miller, another Stone associate, is obligated to testify before Mueller’s grand jury. Miller had appealed a contempt citation, contending that Mueller’s appointment was unconstitutional. Stone and Corsi both seem to expect indictments.
This front is likely to remain active and to generate big news events. But note as well if and when either man or both face charges, that will not be the sky falling for Trump any more than last week’s Cohen plea was. It will be just another set of stones blasted out of the city walls.
Last week’s events revealed another force surrounding the castle, also under Mueller’s command: the investigation of Trump’s efforts to do financial business in Russia. The president, while insisting there was “NO Collusion with Russia,” admitted that he “lightly looked” into building a tower in Moscow months into the 2016 campaign. Trebuchets from the Cohen front sounded into Friday evening, when Cohen’s lawyers filed a sentencing memorandum as a follow-up to the guilty plea. In the memo, Cohen’s legal team said that Cohen “remained in close and regular contact with White House–based staff and legal counsel to Client-1,” another euphemism for Trump. It’s unclear to what extent this investigation is one and the same with the main Mueller collusion force, but it is evidently an active matter, too.
Mueller’s forces also include a major encampment focused on obstruction of justice. This force has so far not done anything the public can see, but it may be getting ready to launch some kind of report against the castle. And this report, whenever it materializes, may prove devastating. But note that the day such a report is completed will also not be the “big one”—the cataclysmic event that causes the house of cards to collapse. After all, any report would likely have to undergo a lengthy approval process, either from within the Justice Department or by the courts, or both. It might have to be approved by Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, before being released. It may have significant classified components. Even if the findings in this report are of bombshell proportions, given that it is unlikely Mueller will reject Office of Legal Counsel guidelines against the indictment of a sitting president, the damage that bombshell will inflict will ultimately be determined by Congress, and its detonation would likely be substantially delayed.
The forces in the castle have actually fought off one part of the besieging fighters. Paul Manafort has floated in and out of headlines throughout the siege. He was the first person, along with his longtime business associate Rick Gates, to be charged by the special counsel in October 2017 for various financial crimes. After his first conviction and subsequent guilty plea and cooperation agreement, his “flipping” appeared to pose a major threat to Trump. But that threat seems to have passed. The special counsel has declared that Manafort is still lying and has breached his plea agreement, and will file a memo this week detailing the extent of Manafort’s breach. This sucks for Manafort, but it’s great news for the folks in the castle. He’s almost certainly useless at this stage as a witness for Mueller. The part of the siege represented by Manafort has, at least for now, lifted.
Possibly more threatening, if less high profile, is Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who is expected to appear for sentencing on December 17. Flynn’s sentencing hearing has been delayed for months, signaling active cooperation of some sort. Back in December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in relation to conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He’s been silent since. Nobody knows what his cooperation with Mueller has consisted of—and thus how worried the forces in the castle should be about the Flynn encampment.
Cohen’s sentencing memo highlighted the presence of some allied forces around the castle separate from Mueller. It described, for example, Cohen’s cooperation with prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, the prosecutors who reached Michael Cohen’s first plea agreement back in August. You remember this force: Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony counts of tax evasion, one count of bank fraud, and two counts of campaign-finance violations involving hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. This front is also active. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that David Pecker, CEO of American Media Inc., has been granted immunity in the criminal investigation related to the investigation into Cohen. Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, was also granted limited immunity in this case. This front could explode at any time, but again, if and when it does so, the sun will rise and set the next day then too.
Cohen’s Saturday sentencing memo also put the spotlight on a non-federal front in this siege: New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s civil suit against the Trump Foundation for “a pattern of persistent illegal conduct, occurring over more than a decade,” for which she seeks $2.8 million in restitution. As the Cohen sentencing memo notes, Cohen has cooperated extensively with this suit as well as with investigations run by New York tax authorities.
There is also an encampment made up of private litigants. Trump is facing civil litigation regarding possible violation of the Emoluments Clause pending in the District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs are Democrat lawmakers. He also faces additional lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of his appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general following the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions.
Finally, there’s the big new army marching on the Trump fortress, with an expected arrival of January 3, 2019: The leadership of the new Congress has already promised to intensify oversight of this administration. Representative Adam Schiff, incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee, has hinted at a restart of that committee’s moribund investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Other committees will be aggressive as well.
Meanwhile, the castle’s defenders are slipping away at night: John Dowd, the president’s personal lawyer, has left matters in the dubious hands of Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow. The White House counsel’s office is a ghost town. Ty Cobb and White House Counsel Don McGahn are both gone. The office now appears to be manned by acting White House Counsel Emmet Flood and a skeleton staff of 25 lawyers (of the estimated 40 it would require to handle its workload).
So what will the big one look like, if not some Mueller-lobbed bombshell? When the walls are finally breached, how will we know that it really is the beginning of the end? Here’s a hint: The big one will not be a legal development, an indictment, or a plea. It will be a political development—that moment when the American political system decides not to tolerate the facts available to it any longer. What does that look like? It looks like impeachment. It looks like enough Republicans breaking with the president to seriously jeopardize his chances of renomination or reelection. The legal developments will degrade the walls. But only this sort of political battering ram can breach them.
Not all sieges succeed. Mont-Saint-Michel, a tiny fortified island off the coast of France, withstood English siege for the entirety of the Hundred Years’ War. If the political system does not come to care about what we are learning, it doesn’t matter how many boulders Mueller hurls against the walls of Castle Trump; the forces laying siege to it will, like the defeated Ottoman Empire after the siege of Vienna, eventually slink away into the snow.