It was Robert Mueller’s best day so far, which meant it was Donald Trump’s worst. Minutes before his former campaign manager was convicted on multiple counts of fraud, the president’s former personal lawyer said he had been directed by Trump to break federal law to cover up affairs with a former porn star and a model. Both men were convicted on eight counts. It provided the clearest signal yet that Mueller’s investigation is closing in on Trump.
Next month, Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign chairman, and who personifies the Washington swamp his former boss vowed to drain, faces a separate criminal trial for conspiracy against the US. He already faces a lengthy sentence.
The prosecution has recommended a sentence of up to 63 months for Michael Cohen, Trump's long-time fixer.
Yet Mueller has barely scratched the surface. The drama will now intensify. There are three immediate risks to Mueller.
The first is that Trump could sack him. He has already twice tried to do so. This time, aides may find it impossible to restrain the president. Before the latest verdicts, Trump had already taken to calling Mueller a “disgraced and discredited” man and alleging that the former FBI chief – and registered Republican – is in cahoots with Hillary Clinton’s people.
Trump has called the prosecutors on Mueller's team "thugs" and "angry Democrats". He has also compared the special counsel's work to the red scare investigations spearheaded by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s – for whom Trump's former lawyer, the late Roy Cohn, was a legal aide.
There are just 11 weeks before the midterm Congressional elections. Democrats look to be on course to retake the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate.
A midterm victory would give Democrats the power to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. It would also give them the ability to reappoint Mueller as the congressional special prosecutor should the president fire him. Mueller’s biggest moment of danger is in the coming weeks.
Second, Trump could thwart Mueller by issuing pardons at any time to Manafort, and to other likely targets, such as Donald Trump Jr, the president's son, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. A flurry of pardons would deprive Mueller of leverage to force their co-operation as witnesses. But it would also further provoke a future Democratic-majority House to begin impeachment proceedings.
Trump has already contradicted himself on Twitter by admitting that his son and son-in-law held a meeting in June 2016 with a lawyer connected to the Kremlin to unearth dirt on Clinton's campaign. The president previously claimed to have had no knowledge of that Trump Tower conversation. He subsequently said it was about Russian adoption laws. The 2016 meeting could form a key part of a charge that Trump conspired with Russia to sway the US election.
The third risk to Mueller is that his investigation is handicapped by the judiciary. Trump has made it plain that he will not voluntarily submit to Mueller’s interrogation. The special counsel is thus likely to issue a subpoena to force the president to comply. Trump’s appeal would quickly make its way to the supreme court.
If, as is expected, Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee, is confirmed in the coming weeks, the court is more likely to come down in support of Trump's argument that a sitting president cannot be forced to testify. Kavanaugh has written extensively about how the courts should not stymie a president's ability to do his job.
Any one of these risks could take America to the brink of a constitutional crisis. It could also have an unpredictable effect on the midterm elections.
Most of the US public has so far taken little interest in the details of the 15-month Mueller probe. That may be about to change. Either way, Trump’s presidency is entering a new and more dangerous phase.
The midterm election is fast turning into a contest between two outrage machines – one of which claims the deep state is conducting a witch hunt against the president, the other of which believes the US president is a criminal. House of Cards scriptwriters might have to find a different line of work. Reality is so much more startling. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018