Rarely has there been a day like yesterday in the American experience. During the course of the day, the floundering Trump Administration was rocked by policy shocks and legal developments.
Microsoft revealed that it had uncovered a Russian cyber effort targeting several think tanks and the U.S. Senate.
Facebook revealed that it had taken down 652 pages associated with Russian and Iranian disinformation.
The IAEA reported that there was no evidence that North Korea had begun to curb its nuclear activities.
Former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of financial crimes.
Longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax- and campaign finance-related charges, while implicating President Trump on the campaign finance charges.
The day ended with Trump ally, Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) being indicted for the misuse of campaign funds for personal purposes.
The Cohen plea deal was, by far, the most damaging to President Trump. Nevertheless, from the confines of their Talk Radio bubble, a few Trump allies attempted to mount a frantic defense. Talk Radio host Mark Levin concocted a flawed defense based on a misreading of the United States Attorney’s charges (documentcloud.org).
According to Conservative Review, Levin claimed:
I wanna help the law professors, the constitutional experts, the criminal defense lawyers, the former prosecutors, and of course the professors, I wanna help them understand what the law is… The general counsel for the Clinton mob family, Lanny Davis, he had his client plead to two counts of criminality that don’t exist… A candidate who spends his own money, or even corporate money, for an event that occurred not as a result of the campaign — it is not a campaign expenditure
Afterward, Levin concluded, “Donald Trump’s in the clear.”
Not exactly. More than likely, the Talk Radio host’s conclusion will be as short-lived as his previous “Appointments Clause” argument that the Special Counsel’s appointment was unconstitutional (Washington Times). Subsequently, federal district judge Dabney Friedrich upheld Robert Mueller’s appointment and authority as constitutional (CNN).
First, Levin’s incorrect position is rooted on the idea that campaign expenditures were involved. In fact, as the U.S. Attorney’s Charges document, campaign contributions were involved. Thus, Levin’s argument does not address the plea deal, but circumvents the substance of the charges to reach a flawed conclusion based on transactions, namely campaign expenditures, that did not take place.
Second, some of the nation’s leading Constitutional scholars have suggested that the Cohen plea deal is, in fact, potentially damaging to President Trump. At least one has raised the risk of impeachment.
Harvard University Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe explained on Twitter:
Whether or not *called* an unindicted co-conspirator, that’s what the sitting president IS as of close of business today, August 21, 2018, a day that will live in legal infamy. That’s the import of two of Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) August 21, 2018
He also tweeted:
Trump’s “no collusion” mantra is now ludicrous. Collusion — indeed, conspiracy — with Michael Cohen and others to defraud the American people by criminally manipulating the presidential election is now clear from Cohen’s guilty pleas — even without Russia’s involvement.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) August 22, 2018
Finally, he referred his audience to the book he co-authored with Joshua Matz, To End A Presidency (Basic Books, 2018) to discuss the impeachment risk. He argued that the issue at hand involved “corrupt acquisition” of the Presidency, which is an impeachable offense. He quoted from page 60 of the book, which states, “While creating the Constitution, [the Framers] repeatedly described corrupt acquisition of the presidency as a paradigm case for impeachment.”
Neal Ketyal, former Acting Solicitor General of the United States and a Supreme Court lawyer, also cited the legal risk to which the President is exposed. He tweeted:
The plea agmt was one thing. But the criminal information, just filed in Court, details Cohen & Trump's illegal schemes. This is very,very bad for the President. The Q that should be asked now is whether resignation is a better alternative than impeachmenthttps://t.co/Rpn4hGLMjM
— Neal Katyal (@neal_katyal) August 21, 2018
He added in a reply to a Fox News quote that Alan Dershowitz dismissed the plea deal observing that “every candidate violates election laws when they run for President…”
This is, to use the technical legal term, poppycock. Candidates for President don't go around paying off people w/incriminating evidence 2 weeks before an election. It's not just the 130k, it's when&why. This may have been the most significant campaign contribution in US history https://t.co/OZXMP82Jjc
— Neal Katyal (@neal_katyal) August 22, 2018
Third, should it be established that President Trump engaged in illegal campaign finance conduct in pursuit of the Presidency, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that he could have acted illegally in other areas, as well. That possibility will increase the scrutiny given to the meeting Donald Trump, Jr., among others held with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in pursuit of “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. (CNN)
As with the Cohen payments, the Trump Administration’s account of that meeting has continually changed. At present, it remains uncertain whether President Trump knew about the meeting in advance, much less authorized it. However, given Cohen’s account of Trump’s directing him to make the campaign-finance related transactions, the question as to whether Trump could have directed his son and other campaign officials to seek such information has gained relevance and urgency.
In sum, Cohen’s plea deal does not leave President Trump “in the clear.” That’s a deeply flawed conclusion based on a misreading of the U.S. Attorney’s charges spiced with a heavy dose of partisan bias. Instead, President Trump’s political, and possibly, legal peril has increased with the Cohen plea deal.