We are in unchartered territory.
On Monday morning, FBI agents raided the office and home of President Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen (the other one).
This is remarkable for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that the president’s personal lawyer — a man who has pledged unyielding loyalty to Trump, depicted himself as the president’s fixer, and is one of his closest business confidantes — is the subject of a criminal investigation.
Second, that the US attorney’s office in New York (after a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller) was even able to get a search warrant on Cohen is an impressive feat — and an ominous development for Cohen. To get a federal search warrant on a lawyer — which risks violating attorney-client privilege — is a very difficult hill to climb. It requires multiple authorizations within the Department of Justice. It necessitates the sign off of high-level Justice officials, including the deputy attorney general, and it means convincing a federal judge that less intrusive methods of seeking information will not work. In short, the US attorney’s office had to show that it had compelling evidence that Cohen had committed a crime and that there was a risk that without a search warrant, evidence would be destroyed.
Third, while Cohen is undoubtedly in serious legal trouble, it’s also obvious that Trump is squarely in the cross-hairs of the special counsel. Among the records seized at Cohen’s office were communications between Trump and Cohen. To get those records, the US attorney would have needed to present evidence that a crime has been committed or the information being sought after is not protected by attorney-client privilege. Either way, one has to strongly assume that the information sought shows evidence of a crime.
Lastly, and perhaps the greatest irony of all, is that — according to press reports — the FBI seized documents related to a $130,00 payment made to Stormy Daniels, which means that the payoff to the adult film star could end up being the president’s undoing. Considering the sheer breadth of Trump’s wrongdoing, if this ends up being the case it would be like prosecuting Al Capone not for tax evasion, but jaywalking.
But what is more disturbing than these latest machinations is the president’s reaction to all of this: It shows a man who is completely unhinged (at least slightly more so than usual). With arms defiantly crossed and surrounded in the Cabinet room by ashen face members of the military — as well as his own staff — who were there to talk about a potential US response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians, Trump railed against the alleged “witch hunt” being propagated by Mueller. He called it a “disgraceful situation,” falsely stated that Mueller’s team had huge conflicts of interest, and in language mimicking that of my two young children, said it was “a whole new level of unfairness.”
Trump again bitterly attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, i.e. not obstructing justice on Trump’s behalf. He went after Hillary Clinton, again, for her missing, “acid-washed” 33,000 e-mails. It was like a Trump conspiracy theory greatest hits.
Worst of all, Trump openly mused about the possibility of firing Robert Mueller, which led to surreal night on cable news in which reporters and analysts openly speculated about whether Trump will try to remove the special counsel, with one even calling it a choice that the president needs to make.
I suppose it’s understandable at this point. The question of whether the president will try to fire Mueller has become Washington’s favorite guessing game. But that we are talking about an impeachment-level offense that would represent a clear effort to obstruct justice and subvert the rule of law seemed at times to almost be an afterthought. I take the view that Trump will have a difficult time finding anyone at the Department of Justice who will be willing to fire Robert Mueller. But that people anticipate this happening in the near future speaks to how far down the rabbit hole we’ve descended. A president publicly debating whether he will fire the man investigating him, with Congress largely sitting back and doing nothing, is the definition of “this is not normal.”
As Monday’s events and Trump’s reaction to them show, we have a president who will do anything to save his own skin. He cares not one whit about the law, ethics, norms, or the good of the country. As has always been the case, Trump’s only concern is Trump.
This feels like the beginning stages of the last act for this presidential melodrama. The showdown between Trump and Mueller is coming. The question is not if or when, but rather how bad will it be . . . and how will the country survive.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.