On Tuesday, the president of the United States was credibly accused in federal court of directing one of his subordinates to commit a federal crime. The effect of their alleged conspiracy against campaign finance laws was to defraud American voters, who were prevented from learning potentially relevant information ahead of Election Day 2016. This admission came from President Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen as he pleaded guilty to eight felony counts. Trump cannot pretend these crimes did not occur or that they have nothing to do with him.
Neither can Congress.
In an extraordinary coincidence, Cohen’s plea in New York City came within minutes of a jury in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, announcing the conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, also on eight felony counts. It made for a historic day, and not one Americans could take pride in.
For special counsel Robert Mueller III, whom Trump has been vilifying with increasing bile, it was another day of vindication. Mueller’s office prosecuted Manafort and, having uncovered Cohen’s misdeeds, had handed that matter to fellow prosecutors in New York. Mueller continues to demonstrate with quiet professionalism and steady results that his investigation is anything but the “witch hunt” of Trump’s insult-mongering.
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For a president who had promised to hire only the best, the twin results represented a stunning rebuke. Throughout these prosecutions, Trump vacillated between distancing himself from Manafort (he worked for the president for only “a very short period of time”) and embracing him (he is “a very good person”). Similarly, Trump flipped from fury that Cohen’s offices were raided to claiming that he and Cohen were never all that close. This contradictory excuse-making should not distract from the fact that the president has staffed his campaign and administration with shady characters, fringe ideologues and other opportunistic hangers-on who would never have approached their high positions but for Trump’s lack of judgment.
In Manafort, he hired a campaign chairman who made millions working for people interested in undermining democracy in the former Soviet Union, then used exotic methods to bring the money to the United States. As his scheme was unraveling, he was counting delegates for Trump’s Republican National Convention balloting.
Cohen spent years in the Trump Organization apparently putting out fires Trump started. This practice resulted in an illegal 2016 campaign contribution consisting of a $130,000 payoff to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star alleging an affair with Trump. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in May this was part of “a long-standing agreement that Michael Cohen takes care of situations like this, then gets paid for them sometimes.” In fact, Cohen said in court Tuesday that he paid hush money to Daniels “at the direction of” Trump. Campaign finance experts say Trump may now be considered a co-conspirator in Cohen’s crime. Meantime, Cohen also committed bank and tax fraud relating to his New York taxi and other businesses.
These revelations of guilt come on top of those of others who spent time in Trump’s orbit, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted in a December plea deal that he lied to the FBI about his contact with Russian officials.
Cohen and Manafort are heading to prison. Flynn has yet to be sentenced. But it is unclear whether the man they worked for, the president, will face any formal scrutiny or consequences. The Constitution largely assigns that job to Congress, and powerful Republican lawmakers have seemed more interested in covering for Trump than investigating him.
Tuesday’s events must bring that partisan abdication of public duty to an end. Congress must open investigations into Trump’s role in the crime Cohen has admitted to. It is far too soon to say where such inquiries would lead. But legislators cannot in good conscience ignore an alleged co- conspirator in the White House.
This editorial was originally published by The Washington Post.