For the past two years, it has often felt as though we’ve entered the darkest timeline, one in which neither facts nor long-held values seemed to matter one whit. The president of the United States could lie with abandon, or declare to the world that he trusts the word of a foreign dictator over that of his own intelligence services, without suffering any adverse consequences. So there is something deeply cathartic in seeing the legal system re-establishing the reign of cold hard facts.
Despite his shady reputation, Paul Manafort rose to become the campaign manager of a major party presidential candidate. But all of his talent for sweet talk and manipulation could not save him from a verdict by 12 of his peers; unless he receives a pardon, he is likely to spend most of the rest of his life behind bars.
Thanks to his utter shamelessness, Michael Cohen rose to become Donald Trump’s fixer. But all of his devotion to the man he had served for the better part of his adult life could not buy his help or his compassion; faced with an only slightly shorter prison sentence, he struck a plea deal that deeply incriminates the sitting president.
It is, then, only natural that many of us have felt elated for the past few days. It turns out that some institutions still are holding up: Law enforcement agencies remain capable of bringing one of the president’s closest allies to justice. America is not yet so partisan that a jury is unwilling to let facts rather than political preferences guide its deliberations.
For the millions of Americans who are overwhelmed and a little confused by the sheer volume of accusations against Trump, and are unsure whether to trust his vociferous detractors or his steadfast defenders, the convictions of Cohen and Manafort also provide a much-needed moment of moral clarity: One of the president’s closest allies has publicly accused him of committing a felony. On the very same day, a jury has unanimously found that another of the president’s closest allies has, over a span of decades, engaged in shockingly corrupt practices. Even Americans who are not all that interested in politics, and are no more inclined to trust MSNBC than they are to trust Fox News, should now be able to see that Robert Mueller’s investigation is anything but a “witch hunt.”
And yet I fear that all of this jubilation is making us forget the underlying facts just as they are coming into view more and more clearly. It’s not just that it is now obvious that Trump was likely elected president thanks to a series of grave felonies, something that will remain a black mark on the republic for decades. It is also that the real battle is yet to come.
Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s shady dealings has been advancing with remarkable speed and success. Big questions remain about just how complicit Trump was with Russian interference in the presidential election, and indeed about just how criminal his business practices have been. But with Cohen striking a deal with prosecutors, Manafort under growing pressure to cooperate with the investigation, and a wide range of other Trump associates in serious legal peril, it is now overwhelmingly likely that Mueller will be able to build a very serious case against the president.
Trump, meanwhile, has made it amply evident that he does not consider any institution that might interfere with his interests to be legitimate—not the FBI, not the Department of Justice, and certainly not the probe by the special counsel. That’s why he is attacking these institutions on Twitter and TV virtually every day. And it’s also why he is testing ways he can subvert the separation of powers by getting his critics fired or revoking their security clearances.
In other words, the two trains are now barreling toward each other at full speed. While it is certainly imaginable that one might suddenly break, or that some unlikely actor somehow finds a way of sending the other one down a different track, the collision feels practically inevitable.
Who is likely to prevail?
The conventional wisdom still holds that any direct attempt by Trump to fire Mueller or pardon Cohen and Manafort would be the beginning of his end. But we should, by now, have learned that it is perilous to predict which blatantly immoral or unconstitutional acts will actually take a toll on this presidency. Justice has, for the time being, been served against Cohen and Manafort. But we have yet to see whether the rules that apply to the henchmen also apply to their boss.
Indeed, the past few days have provided fresh evidence that the president’s loyalists will stand by him no matter what. Media outlets like Fox News have tried their best to downplay or ignore the verdicts, choosing to show live footage from Trump’s rally in West Virginia. And despite the lurid nature of the allegations against the president, congressional Republicans have once again been conspicuous in their silence.
There is a simple reason why Trump has, over the years, been able to cross one red line after another without suffering serious consequences: For all of the column inches written by commentators like me, and for all of the hours of cable television devoted to the latest findings of the Mueller investigation, the president’s opponents have not yet been able to elevate any particular outrage in such a way that average Americans truly understood what is at stake.
The impending clash between Trump and Mueller is likely to create the biggest opportunity to change that. But if we blow it, as well we might, the damage to our republic will be very severe.