“Waiting for the jury to come in” is a good description of what this August has felt like. We’ve all been wondering how our legal system would cope with President Trump -- even as we awaited the broader verdict of public opinion that will come with the November midterm elections.
Many Americans will probably remember how they heard the news Tuesday that 12 of our fellow citizens had voted to convict Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight felony counts, and that Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen had pleaded guilty to eight counts of his own. It was one of those days when the world seemed suspended momentarily, and then turned a bit, as if on a hinge.
My vantage point couldn’t have been foggier. I was on a sailboat off the coast of Maine, literally in a fogbank, with my cellphone connection fading in and out. So, for some time after the Manafort conviction and the Cohen plea deal, it was impossible to know what had happened. Historians describe battles whose outcome was uncertain to observers because of the smoke of the cannons and the delay of messengers. That’s what Tuesday felt like for me.
As the news was confirmed, I’m sure many people shared a similar sense that our American legal system had worked -- that it had surmounted its first big challenge in containing a lawless and defiant president. This story still has a very long way to go, but if Cohen hadn’t made his plea agreement, and if the Manafort jury hadn’t agreed to convict on some counts, our national narrative would today be headed in a different direction.
We can be grateful for some unlikely gifts this week. We’re lucky, as it turns out, that US District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III was so sharp in criticizing prosecutors in the Manafort case that an upset lead attorney, Greg Andres, protested at one point, “The court interrupts every single one of the government’s directs (direct questions), every single one.” After Ellis’ interjections, it will be difficult for Trump’s defenders to argue that the trial was biased in favor of special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
We’re probably fortunate, too, that the jury reached a split verdict, convicting Manafort on eight out of 18 counts. Reportedly because of one holdout juror, the panel was not unanimously convinced by the entire case presented by the government. For a divided America, this outcome ought to evoke our national icon of justice -- blindfolded and holding a balance in her hand to weigh the evidence fairly.
And however odd it seems, we should celebrate the fact that Cohen, the man who did Trump’s legal dirty work for so many years, decided that he wanted to cop a plea -- and in the process, to present himself as a man seeking to serve his country by telling the truth at last about his former boss.
Though six of the counts to which Cohen pleaded guilty involved fraud schemes that had no apparent connection to Trump, the last two directly implicated the president. Here’s how his lawyer, Lanny Davis, described the implication of Cohen’s plea that he facilitated payments to a porn star and Playboy playmate: “Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.”
The Cohen case, so far, has nothing to do with the two central allegations at the heart of the Mueller probe: obstruction of justice and election collusion with Russia. But interestingly, Russia does figure in Cohen’s motivations, according to Davis: After watching Trump support Russian President Vladimir Putin against US intelligence agencies at the press conference following the Helsinki summit, Cohen “worried about the future of the country with somebody who was aligning himself with Mr. Putin,” Davis told NBC on Wednesday.
As Trump’s world collapses around him, the danger for the country arguably increases. Trump could lash out at his tormentors, reasoning that a constitutional crisis is his only possible salvation; the partisan fever in America could spike even further, with angry people on both sides taking to the streets; and foreign adversaries could seek to exploit our troubles.
But this week, it seems more likely that America is heading toward a gradual recovery from the trauma of the Trump presidency. For Republicans, there is a last chance over these next two months to finally show some guts and principle by separating themselves from Trump.
Then comes the November election, and it seems a reasonable bet, after Tuesday, to trust in the good sense of the American public.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)