They show up for every presidential campaign: wannabes like George Papadopoulos, self-promoters like Carter Page, and worse, grifters like Paul Manafort and straphangers like Michael Cohen.
Grifters attach themselves to campaigns to refresh their credentials so they can sell their services to foreign governments and political parties, or businesses looking to buy influence. Straphangers hope to land a job in the West Wing — and if that’s not possible, to cash in on their connections.
The consequences for President Trump of having people like this around him became clearer than ever Tuesday, when his former campaign chairman, Manafort, was found guilty of tax and bank fraud and hiding foreign bank accounts, while the president’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer,” Cohen, pleaded guilty to tax evasion, making false statements, and campaign-finance violations.
So what’s the likely political fallout from these courtroom bombshells?
Following Tuesday’s verdict, the president declared that special counsel Robert Mueller’s successful prosecution of Manafort “has nothing to do with Russian collusion.” Trump is right — for now. Only the final special-counsel report will settle that definitively. Still, there’s reason to be skeptical of the collusion narrative. Every presidential campaign leaks, and the Trump campaign leaked more than any in history.
Some defenders of the president dismiss the Manafort verdict as a witch hunt. This is wrong and unwise. Mueller acted within his mandate, and Manafort was found guilty of failing to pay taxes on $30 million of income from consulting in Ukraine, $18 million of which he spent on clothing, antiques, real estate and home expenses. Though they may be distressed by the notion of 69-year-old Manafort spending decades in prison, Trump’s allies could spend their energy better by pointing out that the president was not involved in his schemes and was in fact used by him.
Cohen’s guilty pleas are more troubling for Trump, and not simply because Cohen admitted to paying hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who claim to have had affairs with Trump. Cohen now says Trump directed him to make the payments to protect his election prospects, an action some believe constitutes a violation of campaign-finance laws.
But many legal analysts doubt the payments were illegal, including Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama and legal adviser to Obama’s campaigns. The president, he believes, “does not have to deny that politics played some part in his and Cohen’s plotting.”
Rather, Bauer argues that Trump’s desire to protect his personal reputation complicates the campaign-finance question: “A dual motive is enough to muddy the legal waters.”
Still, Tuesday’s events will bring significant damage. Manafort’s and Cohen’s legal troubles will further cement in the public’s mind that corrupt people weaseled their way into Trump’s orbit before and during his presidential campaign.
The events will also strengthen congressional Democrats’ argument that their party is a necessary check on the president.