We don’t need an X-ray to see the cancer growing on this presidency. The raids on the residences and office of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, are the malignancy once again bursting into view.
Outside of Trump’s immediate family there is no one closer to the President than Cohen, his long-time consigliere, a man who has said he would willingly take a bullet for his boss. It is unsurprising if alarming that Trump has called the raids on his personal attorney nothing less than “an attack on our country.”
All the facts are not in — many may not come in for months or years — but what we already know about Cohen’s role and his intimate ties to Trump is enough to draw troubling observations.
The investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller had been investigating Cohen in connection with, among other things, Trump Organization real estate dealings in Moscow during the campaign. In the course of that investigation, evidence suggesting a crime had been committed appears to have surfaced. Mueller reported what he found to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who has supervisory authority over him. Rosenstein advised Mueller not to pursue the matter on his own but refer it to Geoffrey Berman, Trump’s appointee as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In a highly unusual and widely criticized move, Trump had interviewed Berman for that critical position. A lot was at stake for Trump. After all, Trump Tower is within the Southern District’s jurisdiction. Yet as we now see, if Trump was expecting loyalty from Berman, a partner at Rudy Giuliani’s law firm, he did not get it.
The media have reported the criminal activity being investigated by the FBI in Monday’s raids is connected with, among other things, the payoff of $130,000 that Cohen made to the porn star Stormy Daniels. He sought to induce her to sign a non-disclosure agreement about her affair with Trump shortly after his marriage to Melania and the birth of their son Baron. Possible crimes named in the search warrant range from election law violations to wire and bank fraud.
The significance of this is akin to any cancer diagnosis. It is not something that chemotherapy or radiation is necessarily going to clear up. After all, what the search warrant does is pierce the attorney-client privilege. Getting such a warrant is no ordinary thing; it requires the Justice Department to walk through a minefield of safeguards. Getting such a warrant for the President’s lawyer entails walking through a minefield contaminated by nuclear fallout. Yet that is what Berman and the Justice Department have successfully done, persuading an impartial judge that the extraordinary action of kicking down the door of the President’s lawyer was a legal necessity. Though a presumption of innocence attaches to Cohen, indications of guilt are flashing red.
Three consequences must now be contemplated. First, the Stormy Daniels matter will be thrust front and center. The slow drip of the salacious scandal will turn overnight into a flow if not a torrent. The political implications will compete with the legal implications for media attention. In an election year, this is a catastrophe for the Republicans and ultimately for the President, whose chances of facing an enraged Democratic Congress in the fall will now grow in direct proportion to the visibility of this tawdry business.
Second, the probability that the President will move to shut down the Mueller investigation is correspondingly increasing as well. Trump’s comments about the case, offered in front of his national security cabinet as it was meeting to deliberate about the chemical attacks in Syria, suggest that he is boiling over, becoming more unhinged than his usual state. If Trump does attempt to shut down the Mueller probe or hands out blanket pardons to Cohen and Manafort and others, we will enter into a constitutional crisis with ramifications that are incalculable.
Third, there is Syria. We must urgently wonder what bearing the internal crisis will have on our country’s external behavior. When Trump fired a fusillade of cruise missiles at Syria in response to last April’s chemical-weapon attack, it earned him plaudits from across the pollical spectrum. That moment may, in fact, be the high point of his presidency. It is definitely not something Trump has forgotten. Will he now attempt an encore, perhaps one in which he significantly ramps up the intensity of the military response.
On the merits a strong response to the Syrian chemical attack is warranted. But it’s a dangerous and alarming irony that, just as Trump has been declaring that the troops will soon come home and the American role in Syria ended, a wider conflagration is becoming something very much in his personal and political interest, a major distraction that he thinks will earn him applause and help him escape from a long series of low misdemeanors if not high crimes.
Schoenfeld, a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney presidential campaign, is the author of, among other books, “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.”