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Matthew Stokes: After Cohen plea, GOP should tread carefully

Life is strangely good in Alabama right now.  I think we all enjoy the quiet life, but our politics are interesting at the moment.  There’s a lot about which to talk and write, from our problems with the environment (next week, Lord willing) to the stunning employment rate to Walt Maddox’s efforts to derail Kay Ivey.  

It’s a good time to be a citizen and a great time to be a pundit. I was excited to jump into most, if not all, of the above topics, but then last Tuesday happened. August 21, 2018, should be marked in history as the day the presidency of Donald J. Trump officially began its decline.  I say “officially” because anyone who has paid attention and is honest with himself should have seen this coming. Whether this decline is fast or slow is anyone’s guess.

So what happened last week?  In a span of about an hour, Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign, was found guilty of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failure to disclose a foreign bank account.  It should be noted that these events predate the Trump campaign but are relatively recent (2013-2014) and involved Manafort working for a very shady Kremlin-backed candidate in the Ukraine.  That sort of activity should have kept him a hundred miles from a presidential campaign.

At the same time that Manafort’s verdict was being read, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors over his payments of hush money to a couple for Trump paramours.  His plea deal includes admitting to tax fraud, false statements to a bank, and campaign finance violations.

While commentators acknowledge that many campaigns have someone in the periphery who trips up and commits a campaign finance violation, fraud is another matter. More pressing for Trump, Cohen’s plea acknowledges that his actions took place “in coordination and at direction of a candidate for federal office.”  Hard to imagine that is anyone other than President Trump.

All of this in the span of an hour.  If you’re a fan of serialized television, you must admit this is a whirlwind worthy of a great season finale.

There is already a lot of noise around these two cases, as Trump partisans cry “witch hunt” and Trump detractors are sharpening their knives for an impeachment fight.  Both sides might do well to cool down, but Americans should realize the gravity of this moment. Cut to the chase, citizens have to contend with the fact that Cohen’s plea deal implicates the sitting president of the United States in a felony committed in the course of the campaign.  

No matter how much Trump and his staff want to normalize this sort of behavior, it isn’t normal. This isn’t something every president does, and, as John Podhoretz of Commentary notes in his reaction to Tuesday’s news, there are only two presidents who have tested these waters.  Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, and Bill Clinton survived by the skin of his teeth.

This is dangerous territory for Republicans.  We are no longer talking about boorish behavior, weird Twitter rants, or even marital infidelities.  In crass political terms, those are storms that can be survived, though there’s a question of whether one should survive them, even if they can.  The new reality is a president accused of a felony, with a prosecutors holding a strong degree of certainty that he is guilty of that accusation.

Later in the week, Trump went to far as to suggest that “flipping,” or cooperating with prosecutors ought to be illegal.  Think about this – the man charged with executing our nation’s laws is discouraging people from cooperating with law enforcement. How is this anything other than a violation of his oath of office? And then there’s the matter of Russian interference. We don’t even know what information has been accessed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, though we do know that Trump associates – including one of his sons – met with Russian representatives under the pretext of gaining dirt on Hillary Clinton.  It may be that the malfeasance stops there, but if we’re honest with ourselves, do we really believe that?

Republicans and conservatives should not give up their core values, but they should realize that support for Donald Trump puts those very values in jeopardy.  If congressional Republicans care about their principles, they should not let Trump bring them down any further. Republicans have tolerated Trump in order to pass their legislative agenda.  

As a conservative, I thought that bargain unwise, but I understood the political calculations. Now the bill has come due, and the party is left with a choice between upholding the rule of law, or blissfully carrying on their support of a man who regards himself, his family, and his associates as above the law and immune to its consequences.  

When the time comes, I implore our Congressional delegation to hold this White House accountable. Protect Jeff Sessions. Protect Robert Mueller. Stop tweeting praise for this administration as though it’s all business as usual. Educate your constituents on why this behavior is not simply unacceptable, but is against the law.  

The GOP tried to hold Bill Clinton accountable to both his moral failings and perjury, and they were right to do so.  Donald Trump should be held to the same standard. The conservative moment deserves better. The Republican party deserves better.  Above all, our country and our Constitution deserve better.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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