Donald Trump has been president for 577 days as of today. One year and seven months, to the day, of what can be described without exaggeration as the least predictable presidency in modern history. And yet, for all the wackiness and whip-sawing of these first 19 months, there's a very credible case to make that the next two-ish weeks are the most critical of Trump's presidency to date -- and will set a course for the remaining years of his presidency that will be very difficult to alter.
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1) The jury in former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's trial on a series of alleged financial crimes entered its third day of deliberation on Monday. While the case focuses on Manafort's interactions with the Ukrainian government prior to his time at the head of Trump's campaign in 2016, it grew out of the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election being led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller. A Manafort conviction would provide momentum for the special counsel's office in advance of the release of Mueller's report on his investigation. (Much more on that below.) If Manafort gets off -- and, to be clear, he will still have to be tried in Washington, DC, on similar charges -- it will give Trump's "witch hunt" attacks more fuel. "See, I told you all along this was a hoax," Trump will tweet -- again and again.
2) Federal prosecutors are reportedly prepping charges against former Trump personal attorney/fixer of problems Michael Cohen in connection with a series of allegedly fraudulent bank loans and potential campaign finance violations tied to payoffs he made to women alleging affairs with Trump in the final days of the 2016 of the presidential campaign. Cohen has signaled repeatedly over the last two months or so that he may be willing to turn on Trump in order to lessen any potential jail time he might face. "My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will," Cohen told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in early July. "I put family and country first." Then, earlier this month, sources familiar with Cohen's thinking told CNN that Cohen was willing to testify to Mueller that the President knew in advance about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign brass and several Russians. Trump has denied any knowledge of that meeting.
3) We appear to be in the final stages of protracted negotiations between Trump's legal team and the special counsel's office about whether Trump will sit down with Mueller and answer questions. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that Mueller's investigators "have taken 2-3 weeks to get back to us, so what I have to tell you is, look, I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury." The special counsel's office has been tight-lipped about, well, everything -- including whether or not Trump might sit down with Mueller's team. But given Giuliani's repeated assertions that the two sides are entering the latter stages of the negotiating process, it's hard to believe we won't have a decision in the relatively near future.
That's three BIG shoes to drop -- each one of which could alter the others, as well as what follows.
Consider if Manafort is found not guilty. The likelihood of Trump sitting down with Mueller almost certainly goes down because, well, Trump would likely be convinced the special counsel has nothing, so why potentially give him something? Yes, a Cohen plea deal would complicate Trump's calculus somewhat -- depending on what he knows Cohen knows -- but it's hard to imagine Trump would be anything other than emboldened by a Manafort not guilty verdict.
Now, consider if Manafort is found guilty, Cohen is charged and cuts a plea agreement with the special counsel's office. Those twin decisions would ramp up the pressure hugely for Trump to talk to Mueller -- or run the risk of looking like he is hiding something if he doesn't. (Not to mention the fact that we now know that White House counsel Don McGahn gave nearly 30 hours of testimony to the special counsel team). If all of that combines with the onrushing 2018 election, which looks very much like a good year for Democrats, the political climate in Washington for Republicans will be beyond toxic right at the worst possible moment.
The point here is this: We've been in a holding pattern for a very long time on all of this.
- Mueller's investigation has been conducted -- on the special counsel's end -- in almost total silence for its more than year-long existence
- Cohen's office, hotel and home were raided by the FBI in April, but there's been very little in terms of charges or timing since
- Manafort was charged in February -- and we've been waiting ever since for a trial and a verdict.
Into that relative void, Trump has poured tweets.
He has tried to discredit Mueller and the team working on the investigation before they produce a single page of their report. "Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs spent over 30 hours with the White House Councel, only with my approval, for purposes of transparency," Trump tweeted on Monday. "Anybody needing that much time when they know there is no Russian Collusion is just someone looking for trouble." He's sought to downplay Manafort's role in his campaign -- and even suggested the former campaign chairman was a victim of an overzealous "deep state." "He happens to be a very good person, and I think it's very sad what they've done to Paul Manafort," said Trump on Friday. And on Cohen, Trump has abandoned his nice-guy routine, tweeting recently: "What kind of a lawyer would tape a client? So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before? Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things? I hear there are other clients and many reporters that are taped - can this be so? Too bad!"
All of that is just noise, however. High-profile noise. (Noise the media can't ignore, but still just noise). What will likely happen in the next month or so will be actions. And those actions will have major (and minor) consequences all over Trump's presidency, political Washington and the country. Consequences that will last the length of Trump's presidency -- however long that ends up being.
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