While Donald Trump has fumed and lied and misdirected, federal prosecutors have quietly and professionally gone about the business of looking for evidence of high crimes and misdemeanours committed by the U.S. President and his closest associates.
Last week’s bombshell, in which federal prosecutors said Mr. Trump directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments to buy the silence of two women who claimed they’d had extramarital affairs with him, is the most serious revelation yet.
But here’s the thing: It is still not enough to call for the President’s removal.
On evidentiary grounds, the prosecutors have Mr. Trump dead to rights – to the point that he has finally stopped lying and admitted that the hush money was paid.
He tweeted on Monday that the payment to the porn actress Stormy Daniels was a “simple private transaction” and not a campaign spending violation, as the prosecutors contend about the US$130,000 payment.
Mr. Trump also denies that the US$150,000 spent by American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, to purchase the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who said she’d had sex with him – with the intention of suppressing the story – amounted to an illegal campaign donation. Mr. Cohen brokered the deal and arranged to reimburse American Media Inc.
Federal prosecutors, including Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged collusion between Russia and Mr. Trump’s election campaign team, see it differently than the President.
They argue that both payments were illegal and part of a secret effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign. As well, Mr. Cohen has admitted to prosecutors that he “acted in coordination with and at the direction” of Mr. Trump.
The Democrats, who will control the House of Representatives come January, are faced with the question of whether to start impeachment hearings against the President based on the two payments. They would be wise to hold their fire.
Impeachment is a fraught political process, involving both houses of Congress. Given that one of them is Republican-controlled, impeachment cannot succeed without incontrovertible evidence of the most grave accusations. Absent that, it will be seen by most Trump voters as an effort to overturn the 2016 election, and it is not clear that the current crop of alleged offences are enough to justify so drastic a move.
The charges – of violating America’s exceptionally weak election spending rules – are real. But they are best dealt with by the legal process of indictment, rather than the political procedure of impeachment. Given the unique wrinkles of the U.S. rules around the treatment of sitting presidents, Mr. Trump would be unlikely to be indicted until he leaves office.
Impeachment, in contrast, would seek to remove Mr. Trump from office immediately. Elections are the pinnacle of the democratic process, and Mr. Trump’s opponents should rise above the fray and not seek to overturn an election result on anything less than the most serious grounds.
On that score, his opponents can bide their time. Also revealed last week was the fact that Mr. Cohen had confessed to lying about Mr. Trump’s efforts to do business in Russia.
In a separate court filing released Friday, Mr. Mueller said Mr. Cohen confessed to actively pursuing the so-called “Moscow Project” on Mr. Trump’s behalf during the 2016 election campaign, and that Mr. Cohen had lied when he said in 2017 that those efforts were halted before the campaign began.
Mr. Cohen lied to Congress and to investigators, the filing said, in a deliberate attempt to mislead Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling, and to minimize the inconvenient links between Mr. Trump and Moscow. That amounts to the potential for an allegation of obstruction of justice against the President, a charge that would fully justify an impeachment hearing.
Mr. Trump unconvincingly tweeted last week that the case against Mr. Cohen “Totally clears the President.” This week, he has been on a tear, repeating his tired “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT" claims.
The spectacle is like watching a bellowing man trapped in a room with the walls closing in. As Mr. Mueller’s investigation continues, the President could find himself backed into a corner no matter which way he turns. Be patient.