This was arguably the worst week (so far) of President Trump’s time in office. The incoming House speaker showed him up on national TV. He couldn’t get someone to replace John F. Kelly as White House chief of staff (though his hapless son-in-law is said to now be on the list of potential replacements). The president also was implicated (by his own Justice Department) in directing a scheme to hide hush-money payments to two former mistresses. What’s more, we learned, as Cohen did in receiving his three-year sentence, that the campaign-finance-related crimes are serious.
Meanwhile, Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty. On another front, the Senate rebuked Trump on his lies about Mohammed bin Salman and his policy of unfettered support for the Saudi crown prince’s war in Yemen. (Revelations that Jared Kushner advised MBS, as the crown prince is known, during the cover-up phase of the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi didn’t help matters.) In addition, we learned that not only Michael Cohen but executives at the National Enquirer tabloid are cooperating in revealing Trump’s hush-payment scheme. Then things really went downhill.
First, Wall Street Journal reporting puts Trump in the room where the plot to pay hush money was hatched. According to its report, David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media, Inc. met with Trump in August 2015:
Mr. Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., offered to use his National Enquirer tabloid to buy the silence of women if they tried to publicize alleged sexual encounters with Mr. Trump. . . . The Trump Tower meeting and its aftermath are among several previously unreported instances in which Mr. Trump intervened directly to suppress stories about his alleged sexual encounters with women, according to interviews with three dozen people who have direct knowledge of the events or who have been briefed on them, as well as court papers, corporate records and other documents.
Trump’s consistent claims of ignorance about the payments to the two women — former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels — appears to be a bald-faced lie. (“The Wall Street Journal found that Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.”)
At the very least, Trump has repeatedly lied, as have aides on his behalf, in denying knowledge of the payments while investigations were ongoing. Moreover, it belies the notion that Trump was ignorant of the elaborate mechanisms designed to hide the payments from voters. Whether he can be indicted or convicted for conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws remains to be seen. What cannot be doubted is that he misled staff, the media and voters.
As if being placed in the room where the scheme to pay off the women was not enough, Trump now faces another investigation (in addition to the ones being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York concerning the hush-money payments, and the special counsel’s investigation of possible collusion and obstruction of justice). This one concerns pay-to-play in connection with contributions to Trump’s inauguration fund.
The Wall Street Journal reports: “Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said.” According to the report, New York prosecutors also are investigating “whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions, some of the people said. Giving money in exchange for political favors could run afoul of federal corruption laws. Diverting funds from the organization, which was registered as a nonprofit, could also violate federal law.”
It seems there is no aspect of the Trump presidential campaign and presidency that is not under scrutiny — either in New York (where state investigators are already looking into the operation of his foundation), or as part of the Russia investigation. The idea that Trump can escape blame by discrediting a single witness such as Cohen or defang special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry by screaming “Hoax!” cannot pass the straight-face test. There may be still other investigations that still haven’t come to light.
One certainly had the sense this week that prosecutors, armed with mounds of evidence and cooperating witnesses, are getting closer by the day to ensnaring Trump. The president has no idea what they have on him, let alone any ability to end his legal ordeal. For the first time, it is not unreasonable to believe he may not finish his term. If 2018 was horrible for Trump, 2019 likely will be worse.