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Michael Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance fraud, leaving federal court in New York.
Analysis

A Reader’s Guide to Our Constitutional Crisis

What you need to know about the week’s momentous legal and political news in Trumpland.

It’s not easy to write in real time about the legal and political fate of a president who rages in tweets, “NO COLLUSION — RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” at one o’clock in the morning. In part this is because of the gulf that exists between the reality that animates the mind of Donald Trump and the reality in which the rest of us live. In part it’s because so much of what happened this week, in and out of courts in Washington, New York, and Virginia, is unprecedented in the nation’s history. In some ways we’ve already gone past the point at which the Watergate story ended.

The conviction of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on tax fraud and bank fraud charges in Virginia tells us that jurors aren’t going to buy into the administration’s “witch hunt” theme when there is compelling evidence of criminal conduct. A juror emerged on Wednesday to say that a lone holdout prevented prosecutors from sweeping all 18 of the charges against Manafort, a defendant the president later called “brave.” That’s bad news for Trump and bad news for Manafort, too, who now faces a second federal trial, in Washington, before a less sympathetic judge and perhaps less sympathetic jurors, too.

The guilty pleas entered by former Trump lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, for their part, tell us that federal prosecutors believe the president himself may have committed crimes. More bad news for the president. As Benjamin Wittes pointed out, “the significance of the Cohen plea is not merely that Cohen alleges that Trump had him arrange to pay hush money to a porn star and a model in a specific effort to influence the election with illegal corporate contributions. It’s that the Justice Department believes this allegation to be true and is willing to proceed criminally against Cohen on that basis.” And don’t forget it was federal prosecutors in New York, and not special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in Washington, who handled the Cohen deal.

As the week ends the single biggest legal question hanging in the air is whether the unindicted co-conspirator of the Cohen plea — Trump himself, otherwise known as “Individual 1” in court document — can become an indicted co-conspirator and there is no definite answer to that question. The best analysis on this point came earlier this year, in May, when law professor Garrett Epps, writing in The Atlantic, surveyed leading constitutional historians and scholars and concluded that the only way to find out for sure if a president can be indicted would be for some brave prosecutor to actually indict a president and see how the courts deal with the issue.

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Adam Liptak, writing in The New York Times, took Epps’ work one step further this week with a piece that asked the second biggest legal question of the moment: When is an offense impeachable? Liptak’s conclusion after his own survey of leading constitutional historians and scholars? The framers may have contemplated impeachment for precisely the sort of conduct now alleged against President Trump — corrupt interference with the democratic process. But there is, Liptak acknowledged, “a gap between constitutional theory and political reality,” and there is no reason to believe that congressional Republicans, or Democrats for that matter, are rushing to impeach Trump, at least not yet.

If you feel like looking back on this historic week and understanding more of the nuance behind it, you could start with details from the Associated Press on how the Cohen deal went down and (if you have a subscription) from The Wall Street Journal on what the plea means not just to the president but to others who interacted with him and Cohen. Don’t miss, too, the NBC News piece that chronicles the ways in which Democrats are planning to respond in case Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller. And Adam Serwer’s Friday piece about how a pardon of Manafort could backfire on Trump.

There is a great deal of good commentary and analysis, too, that’s worthy of your attention. Read Charles Pierce for some historical context on the week’s events. Walter Dellinger, a solicitor general during the Clinton administration, argues that the president’s supporters shouldn’t be too quick to rule out the possibility of a Trump indictment. John Yoo, an architect of the Bush team’s torture policy, is urging this president not to pardon Paul Manafort. Ken White, a former federal prosecutor, seems convinced that Cohen’s plea deal, combined one day with his congressional testimony, could bring down the House of Trump. Jack Goldsmith, another Bush-era official, wonders whether Trump won’t just bring the whole house down with him if he faces impeachment charges.

The last word, for now, goes to Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post, who posed an existential question Wednesday in the middle of the furor: What if no one in Trumpland cares about the president’s alleged culpability or the crimes of all the president’s men?