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DI Politics Chat: Cohen and Manafort Down by the Courtyard

With friends like these. Photo: Getty Images

This chat ran in the Daily Intelligencer newsletter, which combines a digest of the stories you care about with exclusive political commentary that you won’t find on the website. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m talking with three members of New York’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz — about the Manafort verdict and the Cohen deal, and what they augur for Donald Trump.

Ezekiel: Yesterday was very dramatic — but what actually changed?

Jon: 1) Manafort is guilty, and so he can’t hold out for a chance to walk. Has to either be hoping for a pardon, or make a deal. 2) Cohen directly implicated Trump in a federal crime.

Ed: Yeah, on Cohen’s plea, Trump’s enablers kept yelling “what did it have to do with Russia?” It’s a felony we are talking about.

Eric: Yeah. If Trump were not president of the United States, he would be indicted for a campaign finance violation by now. Which means that – by refusing to investigate a crime for which there is clearly probable cause (and consider impeachment if an investigation confirms the available evidence) – congressional Republicans are now, officially, helping the president put himself above the law.

Ed: Re: Manafort, you could certainly interpret Trump’s tweets about him as a thinly veiled promise of a pardon, and hence as obstruction of justice, right? I mean, it’s terrible to keep having to make this point, but what other president would go anywhere near proceedings like this, on the day of a jury verdict? Nixon wouldn’t have done that.

Ezekiel: I’m not an expert but I think the fact that he praised Manafort, essentially for “telling the truth” under pressure probably insulates him from that charge. that leads to another question – is it possible that Cohen (a known liar) is lying about Trump directing him? What are the incentives for him to falsely implicate Trump?

Ed: Anything’s possible, but I don’t believe he’s any less guilty of a crime if he was “directed” to commit one.

Eric: My question would be: What are the incentives for him to unilaterally give hundreds of thousands of dollars to these porn stars?

Ezekiel: There are none, but there might be incentives for him to give the money with the expectation that he’d get paid back later.

Jon: Also, Trump hasn’t denied it, either.

Ezekiel: Well, he said in the interview that he didn’t find out until afterwards, right?

Jon: Did he deny repaying him? We have no evidence there’s a deal. More importantly, there is a tape of them discussing the payment.

Eric: Anyway, I agree that Cohen’s word isn’t gospel. But Occam’s razor suggests that he didn’t make these payments without looping in his boss.

Ezekiel: Well, I mean, that’s my question, isn’t it? If he’s really a fixer half the job is to provide plausible deniability, right? Granted, he’s terrible at his job.

Eric: Yeah. Generally speaking, “but that would be a stupid thing to do” is not an effective argument against any alleged action undertaken by Cohen or Trump.

Ed: Half the problem with being people who constantly skirt the law is that you do stuff  that seems normal and it later blows up and puts everything you do under scrutiny. I’m sure Cohen and Trump had no idea this would come back to haunt them.

Ezekiel: Anyway, to me it seems like the most likely scenario that Trump directed the payments, I’m just wondering whether it really does put Trump in the jackpot. In any case, given that Trump is the president, this would seem like an opportune moment for some congressional oversight.

Ed: Very dry humor, Ezekiel.

Ezekiel: Haha. Eric argues in his piece that just went up, that in a less-polarized era, we might have gotten some. True?

Eric: My argument is, more specifically, that if we lived in a country where the principle of equality before the law was genuinely sacred — and the norm against elites flouting that principle was consistently enforced — congressional Republicans might have a harder time putting partisanship before the rule-of-law w/r/t Trump.

Ed: I dunno. Congress was controlled by the opposite party during Watergate and most of Iran-Contra.

Jon: Democrats certainly conducted oversight on Clinton in 1993-1994. Held hearings on Whitewater. But, yeah, few examples on unified government. I think Eric is right.

Ed: I would agree that this hyperaggressive cooking up of an entire alternative universe of “deep state” shenanigans is nothing we’ve seen before as a response to presidential malfeasance. Devin Nunes is way more Catholic than this particular pope.

Eric: But political and business elites have been getting away with blatant crimes for decades (often, ones far more severe than those Trump currently stands accused of), so the GOP’s complicity is less surprising

Ed: Remember (no, I know you don’t personally, young-uns, but do you remember reading about) Earl Landgrebe, Nixon’s last-ditch congressional supporter, who famously said: “I will defend this president even if we both have to be taken out and shot!” The entire House GOP Caucus is like that now.

Eric: Haha.

Ed: And they’ve bought into such an extensive conspiracy theory that it’s hard to imagine evidence that would shake them.

Ezekiel: So it seems that yesterday means that Manafort and Cohen have greater incentive to flip for Mueller – how likely do you think it is that Trump tries to pardon one or both of them?

Jon: Manafort yes, Cohen no. Cohen seems to be gone, and is also clearly vulnerable to state charges. I thought Manafort was vulnerable on state charges too, but there’s been no info on that for months.

Ed: And the president, of course, has no power to pardon people from state convictions.

Ezekiel: Did yesterday change the impeachment calculations for Republicans? Would a Manafort pardon?

Jon: No and no.

Ed: It might make them more likely (with reason) to charge that Democrats will impeach Trump if they get control of the House, which is a preferred “rev up the base” message anyway.

Eric: Maybe for individual Republican members of Congress, but not for the caucus.

Ezekiel: Does this get us any closer to getting to the bottom of Russia collusion? Do you think we’ll definitely find out what Manafort and Cohen know about it or not?

Jon: I think we will find out what Cohen knows because he’s cooperating. Manafort is a big mystery. I think he’ll get a pardon, and then how it plays out remains to be seen – can Mueller get some state prosecutorial leverage on him, or not? There are other collusion-y threads, of course. Roger Stone, Peter W. Smith (via Mike Flynn, who is cooperating).

Ed: The question a lot of people are asking today is how much longer is the Mueller investigation going to take? And not just “End the Witch Hunt!” shouters.

Eric: I’m unclear about whether the show will go on hiatus for the midterms, and if so, when.

Ezekiel: I saw a chart a few months ago that showed that the investigation hasn’t been going on that long compared to other investigations by special counsel, so we could be in for the long haul.

Eric: Generally speaking, I’m pretty impressed with the way this scandal has unfolded. Didn’t think it could live up to the expectations it set in the early going. But (while there have been some lulls and dispensable tangents) they’ve found ways to keep things fresh and surprising, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

What Did the Manafort Verdict and Cohen Plea Deal Change?