The worst nightmare for Donald Trump is unfolding. The bright line in the sand has been crossed. We learned though *All the President’s Men* that the way to explore corruption is to follow the money. The Feds are doing that when it comes to the Trump organization. So is the New York state court.
The Wall Street Journal reports this morning:
Allen Weisselberg, President Trump’s longtime financial gatekeeper, was granted immunity by federal prosecutors for providing information about Michael Cohen in the criminal investigation into hush-money payments for two women during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.
This is a major brick in that wall of protection that just fell. A Chief Financial Officer will know where all the financial skeletons are buried. He knows where the money goes and where it comes in. Weisselberg has the keys to the kingdom going back at least thirty years.
He could be the guide the Feds need to all kinds of suspected and alleged improprieties. These may include bank fraud, tax evasion, and a few others that we can barely imagine. Hush money incidentally is not legal. Hush money to influence a campaign might be. Among them we may even see… money laundering. Suffice it to say, this is why personal finances were the bright red line that President Donald Trump pointed to early in the process. This is why he warned Mueller and others to leave that alone. Here is a free piece of advise, don’t tell law enforcement officers to stay away from something. It really makes them curious.
This week has been a disaster for the president. They compare to Watergate and the day that Richard Nixon’s staff started to turn on him. It always takes one to flip for the rest to follow. This week we saw Michael Cohen plead guilty and implicate the president in open court.Then there is David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, who had a safe full of now state evidence, regarding Trump. I am sure it I not just two stories that were caught and killed.
His CFO getting immunity is just the cherry on top for a terrible week for Donald Trump.
So what now? Expect the president to become even more unpredictable. That Twitter feed will become more distraction and also panic worthy. Nor will I be surprised if the public spat with Jeff Sessions becomes a modern day version of the Saturday Night Massacre.
It is said that during the last days of the Nixon administration, the president walked the halls of an empty White House screaming at the pictures of long dead president. We also believe this about those dark days:
Most historians believe that as Richard Nixon staggered toward resignation in 1974, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger undermined the president’s constitutional authority. The late Watergate expert Stanley Kutler was skeptical, asking where was the paper trail? But who would write down such orders? It is more believable that this prickly, patriotic, public servant risked his career to save America rather than risking his reputation by inventing such a crazy story.
Seeing Nixon willing to do anything to win power, Schlesinger feared the president might do anything to retain it. According to the reporter Seymour Hersh, in spring 1974, a Washington bureaucrat, Joseph Laitin, called Schlesinger and speculated about Nixon launching nuclear bombs or mobilizing Marines to save his presidency. “If I were in your job,” Laitin advised, “I would want to know the location of the combat troops nearest to downtown Washington and the chain of command.” “Nice talking to you,” the secretary of defense blurted before hanging up.
We have a variation of this with Donald Trump. He did all he could, perhaps even collude with a foreign power to get power. Yet, his grip is slowly slipping. Lines that were bright red for him have been crossed. His public spat with Attorney General Jeff Sessions is about that lack of loyalty by the AG to him, as king.
The president is angry that the AG is not going after his enemies. He is beyond himself that the justice department is not used to punish those who are critics of him. Historians will see the role of Sessions as a bulk wart for Democratic values. When Sessions was sworn in, many hard core Democrats bemoaned his selection. Sessions does not have a history that recommended him as a defender of civil rights for example. Yet, he stands as a barrier for the president. History will be far kinder to Sessions, than modern-day Democrats.
Sessions recused himself, as career staff in DOJ recommended he do. He stands as a defender of the most basic principles of an independent DOJ. There is some irony in this. But this is a role he did not seek.
We know that Trump is not happy with that. Trump would love to shut down the Robert Mueller probe, and to stop any snooping into his business. He is acting like a mob boss, even repeating language we would expect from a Gambino boss, not the president of the United States. Telling people that flipping should be ilegal is extremely revealing of his current state of mind.
Like Nixon he also has an enemies list, or perhaps more than one. He has been trying to distract with his Twitter from the story. To the credit of the media, this week they have not taken the bait, even as tempting as I am sure it was. The media has remained laser focused on the fact that the walls are closing, and reporting the why.
What the media has not done is point to the minefields ahead. There are a few.
Trump has Authoritarian tendencies. His attacks on the media and the courts, follow the same path as authoritarians elsewhere. Whether that is Hugo Chavez, Pol Pot, or Mussolini, they all needed fawning press and compliant courts.
Strong independent courts are a limit to the desires of the authoritarian and have to be brought to heel. The legislature has to pass laws to make all his actions acquire the veneer of legality, and the media either has to be closed or bullied into silence. We are seeing all this from Trump.
In this respect, we should admit though that Trump is the final act in this long play regarding the media:
There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding. Its roots are long. For decades, the Republican coalition has tried to hang together by hating on elites who claim to know things, like: “What is art?” Or: “What should college students be taught?” Or: “What counts as news?”
The media wing of this history extends back to Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. It passes through Spiro Agnew’s speeches for Richard Nixon in 1969, and winds forward to our own time through William Rusher’s 1988 book, The Coming Battle for the Media, the growth of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and the spectacular success of the Fox News Channel, which found a lucrative business model in resentment news, culture war, and the battle cry of liberal bias.
Donald Trump is both the apotheosis of this history and its accelerant. He has advanced the proposition dramatically, from undue influence — Agnew’s claim — to something closer to treason, in which journalists have become “enemies of the people.” Instead of criticizing “the Media” for unfair treatment, as Agnew did, Trump whips up hatred of it. Some of his most demagogic moments have been attacks on the press, often by singling out reporters and camera crews for abuse during rallies with an atmosphere of menace.
So there is something to be said about a party that helped create this mess. However, expect Trump to become even more aggressive in his war on the media. Some in his base (or many) will be ready for the next step. This is to close down outlets that are critical of the leader, the essential man.
Trump may, against all kinds of legal advise, fire the Attorney General of the United States, We have had signals of this for some time. The protection Sessions has in the United Senate is fraying, and if Republicans lose both House and Senate, they might try to confirm a new AG in the lame duck session.
This would allow them to at least try to stop the legal process. Never mind that it may be too late, and the New York AG is apparently interested in filling charges against the Trump organization. They are now talking to Cohen, and perhaps will also talk to Weisselberg.
Panic should be reaching epic levels. The president has pardon authority only over federal crimes. These are state crimes, and a pardon would be the purview of the New York governor. This will touch on the family business, and affect his children. It is crossing the red line.
This means that the president will continue his attacks on the justice system itself. He will also increase his attacks on other democratic institutions.
When Trump was elected, I remember telling close family that Trump might not end his term in office. It was not because I was a prophet or a seer. Trump showed tendencies during his campaign that should have raised alarms for most Americans. He has attitudes that are closer to the divine rights of kings, than those of a democratic nation. These days some of commentariat are joining me in echoing that he may not end his term. How he will go, if he does, is a good question. However, it will be messy.
We may still see impeachment. However, I do not think that will be the mechanism. I suspect we are going to test the theory of whether a president is truly above the law, and cannot be indicted because of article two, or not. That, I suspect, will be the test.