November 16, 2018

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A perilous week for POTUS

Editorial

“Unindicted co-conspirator.”

It’s a term with a haunting lilt, having first been elevated into common parlance during U.S. politics’ Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s.

Then-president Richard Nixon, who would eventually resign from office in order to avoid impeachment proceedings that had been made inevitable by the accumulated evidence of Oval Office wrongdoing, was named an unindicted co-conspirator in charges stemming from the investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup.

Mr. Nixon remained unindicted because of uncertainty over whether a sitting president could be indicted for a crime, or was shielded by executive privilege. Despite not being charged, however, Mr. Nixon’s presidency was fatally wounded and the legacy of “Tricky Dick” was forever tarnished.

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"Unindicted co-conspirator."

It’s a term with a haunting lilt, having first been elevated into common parlance during U.S. politics’ Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s.

Then-president Richard Nixon, who would eventually resign from office in order to avoid impeachment proceedings that had been made inevitable by the accumulated evidence of Oval Office wrongdoing, was named an unindicted co-conspirator in charges stemming from the investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup.

Mr. Nixon remained unindicted because of uncertainty over whether a sitting president could be indicted for a crime, or was shielded by executive privilege. Despite not being charged, however, Mr. Nixon’s presidency was fatally wounded and the legacy of "Tricky Dick" was forever tarnished.

Which brings us, of course, to the worst week (so far) in the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who had the "unindicted co-conspirator" label attached to him on Tuesday after former lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in New York to eight criminal charges. Two of them included admissions by Mr. Cohen that he acted "in co-ordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office (Mr. Trump)" when he made illegal payments during the 2016 presidential campaign to two women who had sexual relationships with Mr. Trump in 2006 and 2007.

Mr. Cohen’s courtroom statement also included the observation that the payments were made to buy the women’s silence "with the purpose of influencing the election."

The former Trump lawyer’s plea directly implicates the current U.S. president in the commission of two felony offences. The other six charges to which Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty involve tax evasion and bank fraud and are unrelated to Mr. Trump’s political activities.

As the next round of speculation over Mr. Trump’s legal exposure begins and debates restart about the extent to which executive privilege can be invoked, the most damaging elements of Mr. Cohen’s inside knowledge of Trump-world machinations might still be to come.

In an exhaustive round of television interviews on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, stated several times that his client has information regarding a "conspiracy to corrupt American democracy by the Russians" that would be of great interest to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with members of the Trump campaign.

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight offences Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer / The Associated Press files)</p>

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight offences Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer / The Associated Press files)

The Cohen pleas were only half of what made Tuesday bleak for the president. Almost simultaneous to Mr. Cohen’s admissions of guilt in New York was the verdict in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was found guilty in a Virginia courtroom of eight (of 18) financial-crimes charges, including tax fraud, bank fraud and concealing foreign bank accounts.

Mr. Manafort faces a second trial in Washington, D.C., on charges of money laundering and failing to register his foreign lobbying activities in relation to work he did for Ukrainian officials with ties to Russia.

Mr. Trump, not surprisingly, remained defiant on Tuesday night at a rally in West Virginia, making little mention of the Manafort trial or Mr. Cohen’s pleas while unleashing the usual stream of populist slogans, crowd-baiting incitements and "Russian witch hunt" denials.

"Where is the collusion? You know, they are still looking for collusion," Mr. Trump offered, an oblique reference to Tuesday’s courtroom revelations. "Where is collusion? Find the collusion. We want to find the collusion."

One has the distinct impression Mr. Mueller is working, quietly but feverishly, to do just that.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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