Trump Associates’ Legal Woes Have a Political Cost
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s the kind of momentous bad news that rarely happens to any presidency: On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was found guilty on eight counts of tax fraud and other crimes, while the president’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, admitted he made illegal campaign contributions at the instruction of then-candidate Trump.
Some pundits are already dismissing this as just another bump in the road without consequences. Don’t be fooled. Trump has been badly damaged already by the various scandals surrounding him and his administration. This will add to the hurt. After all, the bad behavior doesn’t have to end with the president in jail to inflict real damage.
Cohen’s case carries substantial dangers for Trump. As for Manafort, the president isn’t implicated in the charges, but that doesn’t let him off the hook, even if there are no larger links to the Trump/Russia scandal (and there still could be). Nonetheless, the buck stops with the president, or in this case the presidential candidate, who failed to do even the most cursory vetting of an operative before hiring him to run his campaign. Trump’s failure to notice or care that Manafort -- and General Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor -- had deeply compromising ties to foreign nations is even more of a devastating mark against the president than the allegation that he ordered Cohen to buy the silence of two women during the campaign.
And Cohen’s admissions don’t add much to what we already know about Trump. He remains the man who had to pay out $25 million for the Trump University fraud, and who is currently being sued by the state of New York for fraud involving his foundation. Not to mention that as president he almost certainly obstructed justice, abused his power and used the office for personal profit.
The main reaction of the public should be deep embarrassment that this is our president. This is just the latest evidence that he’s entirely unfit for the position. And it’s a dark stain on the Republican Party that picked him instead of the dozens of perfectly acceptable politicians who would have delivered identical tax policy and judicial nominations, and probably would have been more effective at advancing other party policy goals.
There’s no way to predict the effects the latest events will have on public opinion. Right now, Republican politicians and other party actors have strong incentives to support Trump as much as possible, at least until the midterm elections; it’s never been clear whether the stories about Trump’s affairs (and hush money to keep them out of the news) are a net negative for those who neither strongly support or strongly oppose the president.
But don’t make the mistake of judging every scandal by a Watergate standard and conclude that anything that doesn’t remove the president from office is no big deal. And don’t assume that nothing can harm Trump just because he was elected and retains considerable Republican support. In fact, Trump has been overall the least popular president of the polling era. Right now, he has the third-worst approval rating of the last 13 presidents through 579 days in office. He is doing better than only Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman. And at 52.4 percent, Trump’s disapproval numbers are dead last for this point in a presidency. Since he’s managed that despite prosperity at home and at least relative peace abroad, it’s virtually certain that all these scandals and his overall hugely inappropriate behavior are harming his popularity, probably severely.
And Trump’s professional reputation is terrible, too. Overall, that makes him an unusually weak president, and his associates’ legal woes will just make things worse.
That doesn’t guarantee that he won’t get re-elected, much less that he’ll be impeached and convicted. Nor is it clear that his actions add up to a set of facts demanding impeachment, though by now it’s very clear that such proceedings would at least be justified.
The scandals, however, do make both of those outcomes more likely than if he and his associates were beyond reproach. And whatever does happen to him -- and to those who aren’t headed to prison yet -- he’s been terrible for his party and for the nation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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