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Michael Gerson: There is, again, a cancer on the presidency

Whatever day you are reading this, it is June 1973 in Washington. A lawyer close to the president has turned decisively and damagingly against him. Testifying before a Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal, John Dean described a high-level cover-up, including the use of hush money, designed to influence the outcome of the 1972 presidential election. And he identified President Nixon as part of that criminal conspiracy.

In the course of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, a lawyer close to the president admitted his part in a high-level cover-up, including the use of hush money, designed to influence the 2016 election. And he accused President Trump of directing this legal violation.

This is different from our daily dose of the president’s outrageous tweets and attacks. It is an inflection point in the Trump presidency. He has been credibly accused, not of violating civic norms, but of personal involvement in criminal law breaking. If Trump were not currently the president, he might well be indicted, convicted and face jail time.

His violation of civic norms, by the way, is not a minor matter. The payment to Stormy Daniels was made 11 days prior to the election. This timing indicates, not the prevention of personal mortification, but an attempt to deny voters relevant information. As a result, the 2016 presidential election will always have an asterisk – “outcome may have been influenced by Russian hacking and campaign fraud.”

There is, again, a cancer on the presidency. But the comparison to Watergate offers a caution to the advocates of impeachment. Dean’s testimony was not enough. Many dismissed it as the words of a disgruntled employee.

It took a series of developments to turn the public decisively against Nixon. It was the White House recordings that sealed the president’s fate – including the tape on which he said he could raise $1 million in hush money. It took the firing of the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox (whom Nixon later referred to as the “partisan viper we had planted in our bosom”). And the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. And the allegations of tax evasion. And the missing 18.5 minutes on the tapes. And “expletives deleted.” And “I am not a crook.” It was only in June 1974 that a majority of Americans thought Nixon should resign or be impeached.

Removing a president requires not a nasty legal storm, but a hurricane. And the president has a political base – fed on a Fox News diet – that may be impossible to unroot.

Yet Trump still has serious cause for worry:

    The Cohen wildcard is not yet fully played. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, hints that his client may be keeping some revelations in reserve. What does he know about potential irregularities at the Trump Foundation? About possible advance knowledge of Russian hacking?

    There is still a chance that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort – facing a hefty prison term and a new round of criminal charges – might turn against the president. It is hard to imagine Manafort navigating the criminal justice system with any values but self-interest in mind. Will he continue to choose the hint of a future pardon over the hard reality of additional years in prison?

    Trump could attempt to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. This, given the credible charges already lodged against the president, would appear (and be) an admission of guilt and provoke serious blowback. Promiscuous pardoning might earn a similar response.

    There could be – almost certainly will be – more incriminating tapes made public. Trump carries an atmosphere of carnivorous infighting around him, in which everyone needs to protect themselves from future betrayal. At least two people close to Trump have turned to taping as security.

    The House of Representatives is likely to return to Democratic control, allowing Congress to get past the GOP’s coordinated cowardice and begin real investigations of the administration’s corruption.

Every time we gain a peek into the inner workings of Trump world, we see a leader with the ethics of an Atlantic City casino owner who surrounds himself with people chosen for their willingness to lie and cheat at his bidding. A world in which Paul Manafort is “a very good person.” A world in which payoffs and election tampering are all in a day’s work.

Left to his investigation, Mueller will expose this world to the light. And the choice for Congress is likely to be clear: Impeach, or tolerate massive corruption.


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