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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

After a series of devastating blows, the legal walls are closing in on Trump

According to the Justice Department, a sitting president cannot be indicted – but Manafort and Cohen's evidence is starting to look like the tip of the iceberg, writes Hussein Ibish

US President Donald Trump at an Ohio Republican Party state dinner on Friday. Maddie McGarvey / Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump at an Ohio Republican Party state dinner on Friday. Maddie McGarvey / Bloomberg

A recent series of devastating blows to Donald Trump’s presidency might not be enough to drive him from office but they could well limit him to a single term.

His longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty last week to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions.

Cohen says he paid two women who had affairs with Mr Trump for their silence, in violation of campaign finance laws, "in coordination with and at the direction of” Mr Trump and in order to influence the election, by depriving voters of this important information.

And as Cohen's lawyer asks, how can that be a crime for him but not for Mr Trump?

Were Mr Trump not the president, prosecutors could well be preparing to indict him too. But the Justice Department has a longstanding position that no sitting president can be indicted (although he could be prosecuted after leaving office or after being removed through an impeachment process).

The White House defence is a bizarre and circular syllogism: because he hasn't been indicted, the president hasn't done anything wrong. But, they insist, a sitting president can never be indicted. The obvious and absurd conclusion, by default, is that no sitting president can ever do anything wrong.

Mr Trump has been more forthright, employing choice language to describe those, like Cohen, who are cooperating with the authorities as "rats" while praising as "brave" those who refuse to give any information to the police, such as his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was convicted of numerous serious offences this week.

He has raged against the process of "flipping" – the willingness of prosecutors to make deals with criminals in exchange for testimony against their co-conspirators – saying it "almost ought to be illegal".

What has already been irrefutably established is starting to look very much like the tip of a vast iceberg.

There are suggestions of similar pay-offs to many more women, as former key Trump aide Steve Bannon said in Michael Wolff's bestseller last year, Fire and Fury.

The way Mr Trump repaid Cohen the hush money to the women almost certainly violated major tax as well as campaign finance laws.

None of this involves a possible conspiracy concerning Russian interference in the presidential election nor obstruction of justice, the main subjects of Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation. Or another topic Mr Bannon suggested was also central to Mr Mueller's probe, money laundering.

The sense that things are about to get far worse in fairly short order was strongly reinforced when several key Trump associates, including David Pecker, publisher of the pro-Trump National Enquirer, and the Trump Organisation's longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, both received immunity in the Cohen case.

That means they no longer have the option of remaining silent by invoking the fifth amendment and will have to tell everything they know.

Cohen’s lawyer suggests he, too, has additional sensitive information he is willing to share and, despite Mr Trump’s tirades, he has not yet made a formal deal based on “flipping” on the president. Manafort, too, might have much to bargain with the authorities, given that he faces a heavy sentence soon for his convictions and has another trial pending on additional criminal charges.

Finally, White House counsel Don McGahn has given Mr Mueller 30 hours of testimony which Mr Trump and his lawyers apparently know virtually nothing about.

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Read more from Hussein Ibish:

Israel could have a spate of calm. Gaza might get some relief. But for how long?

Rashida Tlaib's real victory is that she ran her campaign as a Muslim Palestinian woman and won

Trump's foreign policy surrenders US power rather than leveraging it

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Mr Trump is certainly showing signs of major stress. His incensed tweets raging against Mr Mueller, the FBI, the Justice Department and attorney general Jeff Sessions have become incessant.

He has already fired numerous key figures investigating him and he seems to be preparing for another round of sackings.

But if he fires Mr Mueller or impedes his investigation, it will be almost universally regarded as a self-protecting abuse of power.

In spite of being directly accused, in sworn court testimony by his own attorney, no less, of major crimes, Mr Trump is immune from prosecution as president and clearly the Republican Congress isn't interested in impeaching him.

Still, as things stand, the resolution to this crisis will have to be political rather than legal. The midterm elections will thus be decisive.

A Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could cripple Mr Trump’s presidency with investigations, impeach him and force a trial in the Senate, and make the case for major criminal charges against him once he leaves office.

And even if there aren’t sufficient Republican votes in the Senate for the super-majority required to convict and remove him from office, it is becoming very hard to imagine Mr Trump winning a second term with all this – and surely more to come – hanging over his head.

Mr Trump has been the exception to endless political rules and survived innumerable scandals that would have ended any other career. But the walls of legality finally now seem to be closing in on him.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington