Tuesday, Aug. 21, was the worst day of the Donald Trump presidency to date. That afternoon, Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, pled guilty to tax fraud and campaign finance violations. Two minutes later, Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, was found guilty on eight charges of tax and bank fraud. While neither case directly implicates the president — Cohen came close in a courtroom statement — both increase pressure on a mercurial, tempestuous and unpredictable man. The world must prepare for a U.S. president angry, distracted and eager to pick fights to divert attention from his own troubles.
Cohen was Trump’s “go-to guy” and fixer, who famously said that he would “take a bullet for Trump.” Yet on Tuesday afternoon, Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a bank and two campaign finance violations: willfully causing an illegal corporate contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution.
More damning still, he told the court that “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” he worked in summer 2016 to keep an individual from publicly disclosing information that could harm the candidate, adding that he worked “in coordination” with the same candidate to make a payment to a second individual. In other words, the unnamed “candidate” — Trump — told Cohen to pay “hush money” to two women who alleged that they had had affairs with Trump to prevent those allegations from becoming public and damaging his campaign.
Minutes later, a jury in Virginia announced that it had found Manafort guilty on eight of 18 tax- and bank-fraud charges and was deadlocked on the others. Those findings do not affect Trump directly: They involve Manafort’s personal finances. But the guilty verdicts undermine Trump’s charge that legal efforts against his inner circle are without merit and they increase pressure on Manafort to cut a deal with prosecutors to provide information about Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, a step that Manafort has resisted. The prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison could prompt a change in his thinking.
If the Manafort trial tightens the noose around the president, the Cohen plea is an arrow at his heart. Cohen’s attorney pointedly noted that if Cohen is guilty of campaign violations, then so too is the man who directed him to make those payments — Trump. The president replied by arguing that the payments were personal and thus not related to the campaign and that campaign finance violations are routine — he accused his predecessor Barack Obama of similar transgressions. The first point is not true, the second irrelevant.
While these developments are domestic, they could have powerful consequences for U.S. foreign policy. The Cohen statement offers the first real evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Trump and grounds discussion of impeachment in reality rather than the feverish imaginations of his opponents. If Democrats take control of one of the houses of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections — most observers expect the Republicans to lose the House of Representatives — investigations of the Trump campaign and presidency will follow. That will intensify the polarization that marks Washington politics and will make policymaking even more difficult.
To be fair, Republicans have little to show for their control of the executive and legislative branches of government. Yet those few accomplishments are likely to be all that Trump can claim for the remainder of his first term if the Democrats take control of the House. Given the number of situations on slow boil around the world, the prospect of paralysis in Washington is worrisome.
A second danger is that Trump will be distracted by domestic troubles and will not concentrate on distant crises. Indeed, the president likes picking fights to energize and rally his base and focus discussions on issues and the political terrain upon which he feels most comfortable. Trump is most at ease on the stump and on Twitter and the fight for his political survival will be waged there, not in the Situation Room. It is telling that after Tuesday’s events, Trump’s staff planned to distract him with golf and campaign rallies.
A third danger is the obverse of the second: Trump will lash out against foreign adversaries to either distract U.S. domestic audiences or to try to rally the country behind him. This is the famous “wag the dog” scenario in which a U.S. president wages a small war to shift focus from domestic troubles. A real war is unlikely, but an intensification of trade disputes is not. This may be the greatest threat to Japan, given Trump’s long-standing view that this country trades unfairly and his mounting desire to pursue a bilateral free trade agreement to remedy those perceived problems. The Abe administration must prepare for this possibility.