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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There hasn’t been a darker moment for a president — or for the presidency — since Richard Nixon resigned on the verge of impeachment in 1974.
On Tuesday, Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime fixer and former personal lawyer, pleaded guilty to felony crimes that included illegally paying women hush money to help Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. Most important, he said he did so at Trump’s direction.
In other words, Trump cheated to win the White House, according to one of his closest former associates.
Cohen’s admissions were so damaging for the president, both legally and politically, that his lawyer Rudy Giuliani could point only to the lack of an indictment directly against Trump as the good news. “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen,” Giuliani said.
Cohen’s plea was just one of several punishing blows delivered Tuesday to Trump’s narrative that he and his allies came to Washington to “drain the swamp” of corruption. The others: Paul Manafort, the president’s onetime campaign chairman, was convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an early endorser of Trump for president, was indicted on federal charges that he violated campaign finance law.
“The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a conservative, wrote on Twitter after the Cohen plea. “He should resign his office or be impeached and removed from office.” Stephens has been a frequent critic of Trump but had not previously called for his removal.
The allegation that the president not only knew about but directed criminal activity takes the country back to the Nixon days, when the central questions were what the president knew and when he knew it about the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. And the comparisons are sure to fill airwaves across the country in the coming days and weeks.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton was not accused of any underlying crimes as serious as those which Cohen suggests Trump may have committed.
It is possible all of this could have come at a worse time for Trump and his fellow Republicans — it could have happened a week before the midterm elections in November, as the GOP tries to keep control of the House and Senate. But even three months before voters go to the polls is too close for comfort for congressional Republicans.
Regardless of whether Trump is ever charged with anything — and many lawyers argue a president can’t be indicted while in office — voters will get to render their verdict on whether Republicans in Congress have done enough to investigate allegations that Trump subverted a free and fair election.
And when they look at the Trump operation, they will see that the president surrounded himself not with “only the best,” as he has long claimed, but with several convicted criminals.
In addition to Cohen and Manafort, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have all pleaded guilty to felonies. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a political ally, has been indicted on charges related to insider trading.
Not everyone in Trump’s base is quick to excuse those around him.
“If you do something wrong, there ought to be consequences for it — no matter who you are,” said Dan Cooley, a 43-year-old forester from central West Virginia said at a Trump political rally here on Tuesday night, adding that he didn’t think the wrongdoing of others reflected poorly on the president himself.
Whatever the case, voters will render the next verdict on Trump and his allies, and they will do so with Tuesday’s events fresh in their minds. They will know the president stands accused by his own former fixer of breaking the law to win the White House.
It wasn’t just a bad day for Trump, it was a historically awful day for the presidency.