Earlier this week, after reports indicated that Robert Mueller is wrapping up his investigation and will soon submit a final report to William Barr, we noted the obvious, which is this:
The end of the Mueller investigation is not the end of Trump’s legal worries, which will drag on for the foreseeable future, and likely for the rest of his life (literally).
As ever, that wasn’t necessarily an attempt to malign the president. Rather, it was just a statement of fact. Trump is going to rue the day he ascended to the Oval Office – if he doesn’t already. Indeed, you can be absolutely sure he regretted winning the election the very second it was called for him in 2016.
If you just step back and think about this logically, it makes little sense to believe that Trump is happy about being president. Sure, someone with an ego that big doubtlessly got a lot of satisfaction from winning the highest office on the planet on his first try, but being a public servant isn’t exactly Trump’s calling card. Selfless dedication to advancing the interests of others is the antithesis of Trump’s raison d’être.
That accounts for the rather stark juxtaposition between how visibly ecstatic he is when he’s participating in ego-boosting PR events (e.g., rallies and photo ops) and how overtly miserable he looks when he’s doing anything that requires him to actually work or execute the duties of the presidency without any concurrent fanfare. Public service isn’t an end for Trump – it’s a means to an end. Given that, being president isn’t a rewarding experience for him absent the publicity that accompanies public spectacles and whatever satisfaction he gets from being the most powerful person on the planet.
But the annoyances that go along with being responsible for making critical decisions that in many cases affect humanity as a whole (versus his previous life where every decision was made with just one person in mind) pale in comparison to the legal problems Trump has incurred as a direct result of his decision to seek the presidency.
Assuming he doesn’t have a public meltdown and that whatever’s left of his inner circle manages to prevent him from starting a shooting war for the duration of his presidency, the Icarus moment for Trump won’t be a fall from grace tied to a policy mistake. Rather, Trump’s punishment for flying too close to the sun will be a never-ending legal hell. To be sure, Trump is no stranger to litigation, but most of what he’s facing now stems in one way or another from his campaign and/or his time in the Oval Office.
And this is where the real irony comes in. It is entirely possible that the Mueller probe itself will not end up being the worst of Trump’s legal problems. Rather, the multitude of state charges and parallel probes the special counsel investigation has spawned seem far more likely to haunt him for his remaining years.
Sure, Mueller is the “black swan”, so to speak – or at least until William Barr either quashes the report or else the public discovers there was not in fact enough evidence to conclude that Trump knowingly colluded with a hostile foreign power. But barring (get it?) a dramatic turn of events that finds Trump being indicted for conspiracy against the country he runs while he’s still running it (a far-fetched outcome), the real threat to Trump are the myriad investigations into his businesses and other dealings and also the prospect that states will pick up where Mueller left off in order to prevent Trump from using the powers of the presidency to nullify the special counsel’s work.
That’s why two stories which hit on Friday are particularly vexing for the president.
You’ve probably read the headlines by now, but just in case, we thought we’d briefly summarize in the context of everything said above and in the interest of underscoring the notion that it might not be Mueller himself that represents the biggest threat.
First, the Manhattan district attorney’s office is all set to move ahead with state criminal charges against Paul Manafort, who is about to get what amounts to a life sentence given the fact that a quarter of a century in prison is a long time when you’re three quarters of a century old. Here’s the gist of it from Bloomberg, who initially reported the story:
New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is ready to file an array of tax and other charges against Manafort, according to two people familiar with the matter, something seen as an insurance policy should the president exercise his power to free the former aide
At the state level, Vance is preparing an array of criminal charges. While their full extent isn’t clear, they would include evasion of New York taxes and violations of state laws requiring companies to keep accurate books and records, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is confidential.
If you’re wondering whether the state has anticipated cries of double jeopardy, the answer is “yes”. But apparently, you can be charged with evading state taxes in New York even if you’ve already been convicted of federal tax evasion. Additionally, Vance arguably has the legal standing to charge Manafort with falsifying business records.
Here’s some additional color from The New York Times:
The office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., first began investigating Mr. Manafort in 2017 in connection with loans he received from two banks. Those loans were also the subject of some of the counts in the federal indictment that led to his conviction last year. But the state prosecutors deferred their inquiry in order not to interfere with Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
They resumed their investigation in recent months, and a state grand jury began hearing evidence in the case, several people with knowledge of the matter said. The panel is expected to wrap up its work in the coming weeks, several of the people said, and prosecutors likely will ask the grand jurors to vote on charges shortly thereafter.
Manafort’s attorneys would doubtlessly contend that any such move by the state violates their client’s rights and as Bloomberg goes on to point out, “New York’s double jeopardy provisions have frustrated state authorities in the past.”
Regardless of how that hypothetical scenario would play out, the important thing to note is that it wouldn’t be necessary if everyone didn’t think it was at least possible that the President of the United States might pardon his former campaign manager who, you’re reminded, was convicted on eight counts back in August and pleaded guilty to two more in a related case. We’re sure you don’t need that reminder, but the reason we include it is to highlight the sheer blatant audacity that a presidential pardon would entail in this scenario.
But New York isn’t going to let Trump get away with any such move to help Manafort evade prison time and that speaks to the notion that it is the legacy of the Mueller probe and its legal progeny that may end up being most troublesome for Trump.
In a further testament to that, the Times reported on Friday that Michael Cohen (who, like Paul Manafort, is prison bound), met with federal prosecutors in Manhattan again last month, this time to discuss “possible irregularities within the president’s family business and about a donor to the inaugural committee.”
The “irregularities” are reportedly tied to insurance claims and the inaugural committee discussion apparently revolves around California VC Imaad Zuberi who funneled some $900,000 to the committee and attempted to enlist Cohen as a “consultant” around the same time. Presumably, that was related to the same “consulting” business that Cohen used to effectively peddle access to Trump.
Sources don’t know (or wouldn’t say) whether those potential investigations are headed anywhere, but Trump’s inaugural committee is of course under all manner of scrutiny as is the Trump Organization.
“While it was not clear whether the prosecutors found Mr. Cohen’s information credible and whether they intended to pursue it, the meeting suggests that they are interested in broader aspects of the Trump Organization, beyond their investigation into the company’s role in the hush money payments made before the 2016 election to women claiming to have had affairs with Mr. Trump”, the Times flatly notes.
Cohen is set to testify on Capitol Hill before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. He will now report to prison in May as opposed to March. Meanwhile, those following the Manafort drama are anxiously awaiting Mueller’s sentencing memo.
Keeping track of this is a dizzying task, and indeed, that’s the point. Everything and everyone involved with Trump is seemingly under investigation for something by someone somewhere.
And even in cases where there’s arguably no direct connection to the campaign or the presidency, the vast majority of these inquiries might never have seen the light of day had Trump not decided to put himself, his family, his associates and his businesses under a microscope by seeking an office he neither wanted nor had any business occupying in the first place.