During a rally Tuesday night in West Virginia, the president barely made mention of the day’s tribulations—with one exception. “Where is the collusion? Find some collusion,” he said. A set of GOP talking points, obtained by The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, emphasizes that neither the Cohen nor Manafort convictions involve collusion.
This defense misses the forest for the trees. Trump and his allies, so accustomed to playing defense on the collusion front, are ignoring the bigger problem: The president has been implicated in a crime. Perhaps there will still emerge more evidence of Trump-campaign collusion with Russia; perhaps there isn’t any more. But as the White House has been only too eager to point out, collusion isn’t a crime. This argument boils down to saying the president committed a different crime from the one that many people expected. That’s not much of a defense.
A second line of argument is that what Cohen did isn’t really a big deal. “Michael Cohen plead [sic] guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. What he appears to mean is that violations of campaign-finance laws are typically treated as regulatory matters and met with a fine. The president also invoked a $375,000 fine that the Federal Election Commission levied on the 2008 Obama campaign. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who has become one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, argued on Fox News Tuesday that “every candidate violates the election laws when they run for president.”
Dershowitz is right that minor violations of the law are common. From there, the analogies fall apart. The FEC determined that the Obama campaign had failed to disclose in accordance with the law, but it did not find an intentional conspiracy to break the law with a large contribution from a single donor, which is what Cohen pleaded guilty to. There also wasn’t any evidence that Barack Obama himself was involved in the problems—whereas Cohen has said in court that Trump directed him to commit violations.
David Frum: The president is a crook.
It is unclear whether Cohen could still deal more damage. His attorney Lanny Davis said Wednesday that Cohen not only does not want a pardon from the president, but he would also not accept one. Davis also said Cohen would be willing to talk to Mueller, and suggested that Trump knew about Russian hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign chair John Podesta before they occurred. (Caution is merited here. Cohen has made big promises and underdelivered in the past.)
The best news for Trump is that he likely cannot be indicted. Long-standing Justice Department guidance holds that sitting presidents cannot be criminally charged. That doesn’t mean that being implicated in a crime can’t have repercussions. The Constitution provides impeachment as a political alternative to the criminal-justice process, and all of a sudden, murmurs about impeachment got louder Tuesday afternoon. Many Democrats have long wanted to impeach Trump, but they’ve had little concrete to work with. Cohen’s plea may still not be enough to pull off an impeachment vote, but it’s a leap forward for their quest.