ON THE afternoon of August 21st, Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from California, was indicted for filing false campaign reports and spending $250,000 of campaign funds on personal expenses. There were family trips to Italy and Hawaii; shots of tequila at a bachelor party; and “Hawaii shorts” that his wife suggested he should buy at a golf pro shop, so they could disguise the purchase as “balls for the wounded warriors”. Ordinarily, juicy details such as these could occupy cable news for a cycle or two. But they barely rated a mention on Tuesday’s shows, because that was the afternoon on which Robert Mueller—the special counsel charged with investigating possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign—landed his hardest punches yet.
In Virginia a jury found Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, guilty on eight counts of filing false income-tax returns, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. He faces up to 80 years in prison, as well as a second trial on similar charges starting on September 17th.
But the bigger blow came in New York, where Michael Cohen (pictured above), Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and longtime fixer, pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax evasion, banking fraud and campaign-finance violations—which were in fact the payment of hush money to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr Trump. He paid Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, $130,000 directly. He also arranged for a tabloid to buy Karen McDougal’s story for $150,000 with no intention of publishing it. And under oath, in a federal courtroom, Mr Cohen says he made those payments at Mr Trump’s direction “for the principal purpose of influencing the election”. If Mr Cohen’s charge is true—and prosecutors would not have accepted his plea if they believed he was lying—then the president of the United States conspired to violate federal law.
America is now in largely, but not entirely, uncharted territory. John Edwards, a former senator, vice-presidential nominee and presidential candidate, was indicted in 2011 in a similar case: he solicited $925,000 from two wealthy donors and used it to hide his mistress and their child from voters. Federal prosecutors said that because those funds were used to conceal the affair from voters, they amounted to illegal campaign contributions. Mr Edwards was acquitted, but the trial ended his once-promising political career. And, of course, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him, and after prominent congressional Republicans told him he had little support left in Congress.
Mr Trump has not yet reached that point: congressional Republicans continue to stand by him. After the convictions of Messrs Cohen and Manafort, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, Republican leaders in the House and Senate, declined substantive comment. John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, said he did not think that the convictions “implicate [Mr Trump] at all, especially on the Russia investigation”—as though any crimes other than direct collusion with Russia are not worth noticing.
But Mr Mueller’s mandate charges him not only with investigating any connections between Mr Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, but also “any matters that arose or may arise” from that investigation—as the crimes committed by Messrs Cohen and Manafort did. Congressional Republicans are thus no longer defending an unpolished, intemperate tribune of the forgotten man; they are defending someone who may well have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges if he were not president.
Their support may soften if Mr Trump leads the party to huge losses in November’s mid-terms. Democrats have made corruption an increasingly large part of their campaign attacks. They may also argue that Mr Trump has broken faith with his voters: he came into office warning that Hillary Clinton was irredeemably corrupt and electing her president would bog down the country in scandal, whereas he was incorruptible (because he was rich) and committed to hiring “the best people” and “drain[ing] the swamp”.
In fact, he has ably restocked the swamp. As for “the best people”, his former campaign chairman, deputy campaign manager, personal lawyer, former national-security adviser and a foreign-policy adviser to his campaign have all pleaded guilty to or been convicted of federal crimes. His first two congressional endorsers—Mr Hunter and Chris Collins—have both recently been indicted. Two cabinet members have resigned amid ethical woes; scandals are nipping at the heels of several others. Mr Trump’s base will not care—they chanted “Lock her up” at a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night—but more traditional Republicans may.
As for Russian collusion, Mr Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said his client is eager to tell prosecutors what he knows—including whether Mr Trump had advance knowledge that Russians would hack into Democratic officials’ e-mails and about “the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election.”
Mr Davis also said his client would not accept a pardon from Mr Trump (Mr Manafort, facing a much longer sentence, has expressed no such refusal). Legally, Mr Trump’s pardon powers are absolute, and he has used them to benefit supporters such as Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza. Cornered, Mr Trump could lash out in other ways, such as further security-clearance revocations, or even firing Mr Mueller. Even heretofore reticent Republicans may find sacking Mr Mueller a step too far. And they may not save the investigation’s targets: presidential pardons pertain only to federal crimes and Mr Mueller’s team has reportedly worked closely with state attorneys-general.
As for Mr Trump, on the morning after he did what he often does: throw a Twitter tantrum. He praised a convicted criminal, Mr Manafort, and derided federal prosecutors. He said Mr Cohen’s campaign-finance violations were “not a crime”, which of course they were. And he repeated his claim that Mr Mueller’s investigation was a “Witch Hunt”. If that is true, then investigators are getting pretty good at finding witches—and they are inching ever closer to the White House.