For the first 70 years of his life, Donald Trump had all the reason in the world to believe that the rules didn’t apply to him and he could get away with pretty much whatever he wanted. That is no longer true, and today he’s getting two very significant indicators that his defenses against accountability are falling away.
Let’s begin, as many Trump stories do, in a courtroom:
A federal judge on Tuesday postponed the sentencing for Michael Flynn after he lambasted President Trump’s former national security adviser for trying to undermine his own country and said he could not guarantee he would spare Flynn from prison.
The stunning development means that Flynn will have to be sentenced at a later date, when he can possibly convince a judge more thoroughly of how his cooperation has benefited law enforcement. [...]
After reviewing some of the allegations against Flynn, including that he worked to advance the interests of the Turkish government in the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign, the judge pointed to an American flag behind him in the courtroom and said heatedly, “Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably you sold your country out.
“The court’s going to consider that,” the judge said. “I cannot assure you, if you proceed today, you will not receive a sentence of incarceration.”
What happened with Flynn just now deals a blow to one of the tales Trump and his allies have mounted on his behalf. To support their claim that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is corrupt and illegitimate, they insisted Flynn had been duped into lying to the FBI. That fell apart today.
Flynn was involved in a plethora of shady dealings — on Monday, his former partner was charged with crimes related to work they did on behalf of the Turkish government while Flynn was advising Trump, work that Flynn had not revealed at the time, But Flynn was charged only with lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.
Flynn’s lawyers picked up on a ludicrous argument circulating in right wing media that the FBI supposedly tricked him into lying, insisting he should be given leniency. That claim seems to have enraged the judge, who made sure to ask Flynn to state clearly for the record that he knew what he was doing when he lied to the FBI and he takes responsibility for the crime. Flynn did this, making it a lot harder for the president or his defenders to claim otherwise.
Now Flynn has another chance to sit down with Mueller’s team and enhance his cooperation by telling them more than he already has, to avoid time behind bars. While it’s not possible to know what else he might be able to share, it can’t be good for Trump, particularly when you consider that so much of this scandal goes back to that fateful day when the president urged former FBI director James B. Comey to go easy on Flynn. This demand meant Trump may have worried about how much Flynn knows, since we’re pretty sure it wasn’t out of personal loyalty, something Trump feels towards no one.
President Trump has agreed to shut down his embattled personal charity and to give away its remaining money amid allegations that he used the foundation for his personal and political benefit, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced Tuesday.
Underwood said that the Donald J. Trump Foundation is dissolving as her office pursues its lawsuit against the charity, Trump and his three eldest children.
The suit, filed in June, alleged “persistently illegal conduct” at the foundation, which Trump began in 1987. Underwood is continuing to seek more than $2.8 million in restitution and has asked a judge to ban the Trumps temporarily from serving on the boards of other New York nonprofit organizations.
Underwood said Tuesday that her investigation found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation — including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”
Even before Trump began using his foundation to serve his campaign, it was essentially a scam from top to bottom, a way for Trump to do things like make questionable contributions, pay debts with other people’s money, and buy a gigantic painting of himself. Had he not run for president, prosecutors probably would have never bothered to look into it, and he would have continued to stay a couple steps ahead of the law. But as we’ve seen with one Trump scandal after another, as soon as authorities with the ability to issue subpoenas and depose witnesses begin asking questions, the facade falls away and the corrupt truth is revealed.
And these aren't the only places where the fortress Trump has erected to stave off accountability is cracking. Let's run through the other fronts.
One of these is the emoluments clause lawsuit. Trump’s Justice Department is now scrambling in court to try to halt the discovery process in the lawsuit from proceeding. The attorneys general from Maryland and Washington, D.C. are seeking information that would reveal what sort of money from foreign governments and dignitaries are going to Trump’s businesses, principally his hotel in the nation’s capital, which has emerged as a magnet for such foreign spending.
Amusingly, the DOJ explicitly says that this must be stopped because Trump “is likely to suffer irreparable injury” from the “intrusive discovery into his personal finances.” This is likely true in a way that DOJ didn’t intend, as it may reveal in new detail the degree to which Trump is profiting from foreign governments, and raise new questions about whether his decisions are being influenced by that incoming money. Whatever is to become of this lawsuit, it’s obvious right now that the fact that it is moving forward poses a serious potential danger to Trump.
On another front, Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen told ABC News last week that Trump knew full well that he was directing Cohen to carry out a crime when he ordered hush-money payments to women alleging affairs near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign. This deals another big blow to one of Trump’s main defenses: That he merely thought he was ordering Cohen to carry out a “private transaction,” and that it couldn’t have been further from his mind that Cohen would do so illegally.
On this point, it’s still Cohen’s word against Trump’s. But crucially, we know that New York prosecutors believe Cohen’s account of Trump’s criminal motivation and awareness, which in turn means they likely believe this account can be proven. Trump’s defense has basically been that Cohen is his fixer; Trump merely ordered his fixer to fix a problem; if Cohen broke the law in doing so, that’s on him. This is the whole point of a fixer, from Trump’s perspective — he is supposed to insulate the boss from legal accountability when doing his fixing. But this, too, appears to be showing cracks, with the result that he may face indictment, though this might not be until he leaves office.
Finally, there’s the incoming House Democratic majority. Democrats are likely to begin seeking Trump’s tax returns in late January as part of a broader legislative push for pro-democracy reforms. They will probably be looking into Trump’s refusal to hold the Saudi Crown Prince accountable for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, which may entail examining Trump’s financial entanglements with the Saudis.
Sure, it’s possible that all of these different things will turn up nothing. But would that be in keeping with the trajectory we’ve seen so far?