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Who’s The Biggest Threat To Trump’s Presidency?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): I’ve been consumed with the race for the House of late, and I picked my head up on Tuesday and got smacked in the face by two bombshells!

Amelia and Perry, I’ll need your help making sense of them!

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, FiveThirtyEight contributor): This is my first chat — anything to be aware of?

micah: omg! How have I never asked you to do a chat before??!!

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Micah likes when you give long answers and take a long time in between each one.

micah: The opposite of what Perry said.

ameliatd: IDK, Perry’s advice sounds solid.

micah: OK, the two bombshells:

  1. As our friends at ABC News reported, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer/fixer, “pleaded guilty to eight counts and said in open court that he made illegal campaign contributions ‘in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.’” (That candidate is presumably Trump.)
  2. Almost simultaneously, a jury found Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty on eight counts of financial crimes. (Of the special counsel’s 18-count indictment.)

So for today’s chat, let’s go through some of the people making news of late, starting with Cohen and Manafort, and rate each according to how much of a threat — politically and legally — each appears to be at this moment to Trump.

Sound good?

ameliatd: Yes!

perry: Yup.

micah: We’ll put each person on a scale from 1 to 10 “Muellers.”

1 Mueller is no threat at all.

10 Muellers is HUGE threat.

First up: Michael Cohen.

(No relation.)

ameliatd: This is 9 Muellers. Really big news.

It doesn’t appear right now that Cohen is cooperating with the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which is a little surprising, but the fact that he said in court that he violated the law at the direction of the president is huge.

Of course, he didn’t name Trump in court, but that’s standard — clearly Trump is the candidate implicated here.

perry: I would rank Cohen at 8 Muellers.

He is now basically saying that he paid off two women who had affairs with Trump to keep them quiet on the eve of the election. As Amelia said, that’s big.

For one, he’s associating the president directly with criminal activity. And second, that activity happened during Trump’s election, not like seven years ago. Even the charges brought against Manafort are not really about 2016. The Cohen case involved real criminal activity in the middle of the campaign.

I wouldn’t rank Cohen as 9 Muellers, though, because it’s not about the Russia collusion investigation. But Cohen was on the campaign — so he may know something about that issue too.

ameliatd: Cohen is sort of in the middle of everything with Trump. And that’s why I gave this a 9. Collusion, business dealings, obstruction — there’s danger for Trump from all angles.

Maybe I’ve been swayed by the drama of the day, but all of this is really stunning to me.

Cohen said he did this with the intent of influencing the election, and proving the link to the campaign has always been a challenge for campaign finance cases.

perry: Yeah.

Still, I don’t think Trump is likely to be removed from office or pushed to resign because he paid people off to keep extramarital affairs quiet — even if those payments violated the law. Collusion/conspiracy with Russia is the big issue that can end his presidency. I don’t think affairs will do it.

micah: You agree with that, Amelia?

ameliatd: I agree that this doesn’t end Trump’s presidency.

On the other hand, Trump is essentially appearing to be a co-conspirator in a federal crime.

micah: I feel like a lot of people will downplay this as like, “Bureaucratic campaign finance rules mumbo jumbo — who can keep track of that!”

I also wonder, though, whether there’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the media going on here. Repeat “only collusion can bring down Trump” again and again and it becomes so, no?

On paper, this is a big deal!

perry: I think “affairs can’t bring a president down” is the conventional wisdom because — at least in part — Democrats made that case 20 years ago.

micah: Yeah, I’m not saying it will bring down Trump, or should bring down Trump, to be clear.

OK, let’s fold Paul Manafort in here!

perry: 6 Muellers.

Your campaign chairman being found guilty on eight counts is not great, but I think most of the political damage to Trump was done when Manafort was indicted. And it sounds like Manafort isn’t giving evidence against Trump.

Manafort would jump up several Mueller points if the president pardoned him.

ameliatd: 4 Muellers.

He’s guilty on eight counts, which isn’t a big surprise. And he’ll still be sentenced to prison for a long time — federal sentencing is complicated, and the fact that a mistrial was declared on the other 10 won’t have much of an impact.

micah: The only other thing I’d say is that it really wasn’t one thing that brought down Richard Nixon. It was the accumulation of a lot of stuff.

Some of it related. Some of it not.

So, in that sense, all of this could work together against Trump, right?

ameliatd: Yes — one thing that was striking as I was going through Watergate indictments for our chart of special counsel investigations was how many different directions that investigation went in. Not just stuff related to the burglary and cover-up, but enormous numbers of campaign finance violations and even an effort to fix milk prices.

micah: 🥛

ameliatd: So it’s really hard, at this point in any complex investigation, to isolate what is and isn’t important. That seems sort of obvious, but it’s worth repeating, I think.

micah: I’ve always found Manafort’s part in this weird.

On the one hand, his position in Trumpworld was important (campaign chairman) but pretty brief and narrow — i.e., he’s not someone like Cohen or Jared Kushner who’s been with Trump forever.

On the other hand, thematically, Manafort’s bio and résumé line up the best with a theory of the case that’s more toward the full collusion end of the spectrum. Just with his connections to Russia and everything.

perry: Exactly.

And well put.

It’s hard to imagine, if there was a pretty extensive collusion, that Manafort would not be involved.

micah: Yeah, the full-collusion story sorta has to feature Manafort prominently, you would think.

The “witless” collusion story maybe doesn’t as much.

ameliatd: Yes — I mean, Manafort allegedly had contact with Russian business associates during the campaign that are … fishy.

But if he has valuable info, why hasn’t he flipped already? And why hasn’t Mueller charged him with something more directly related to collusion?

I also want to caveat all this by saying that I continue to be confused by Mueller’s strategy on Manafort.

He’s the only person who Mueller has brought to trial. It is not clear to me if that’s because he is trying very hard to flip Manafort because he thinks Manafort has valuable information or if Mueller genuinely just wants to put Manafort behind bars for (alleged) extensive criminal activity.

If it’s the latter, this is not a big threat for Trump.

If it’s the former, it’s hard to say what will happen. Maybe Manafort will flip now that he’s been found guilty of some of the charges against him. He still has another trial coming up, so this is just Round No. 1.

But I think it’s also totally possible that Manafort does not have helpful information for Mueller.

micah: Next!

Donald McGahn, the White House counsel. The New York Times reported a few days ago that McGahn has done a lot of talking with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators and that Trump’s lawyers don’t really have a good grip on what he’s said. (Although, The Washington Post then reported that McGahn “does not believe that he implicated President Trump in any legal wrongdoing.”)

perry: 7

ameliatd: I agree, Perry — 7 Muellers.

(Loving this picture of a gang of identical Muellers.)

micah: Wow. That’s pretty high!

ameliatd: Well, it’s a pretty big deal! McGahn could have given Mueller key information for his potential report on whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation.

perry: McGahn did work on the campaign, so maybe he knows a lot about a conspiracy with Russia, if that happened. But in terms of what he saw/heard at the White House, I think he probably witnessed things that would make Trump look really bad (what Trump did and said as he fired FBI Director James Comey, thought about firing Mueller and took other steps to limit the Russia investigation). But I don’t think he is the witness that changes everything. Based on what we know now, likening McGahn to Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, who came out publicly and strongly against the president back then, is a bit much.

ameliatd: Yeah, in general, I don’t think comparisons to Watergate are helpful. McGahn probably doesn’t have “smoking gun” evidence. (For that matter, neither did John Dean!) But even if McGahn told Mueller about actions by Trump that aren’t criminal, all of that is fodder for the report. And could turn into impeachment charges, if that’s ever a reality.

perry: I’m somewhat skeptical of the idea that Mueller charges Trump with obstructing justice for firing Comey — or that McGahn saying definitely that Trump fired Comey to end the Russia investigation tells us anything that’s significant or new. We can see Trump trying to limit — if not technically illegally obstruct — the Russia investigation right in front of our eyes.

7 is high, but it’s not 10.

And I feel like this McGahn story was covered like it was a 10.

ameliatd: Well, it is August.

micah: Haha. True.

NEXT!

Omarosa Manigault Newman!

perry: 4

If there is a tape of Trump saying the “n” word (as Manigault Newman, a former White House aide, has alleged), that matters. Yes, Trump has done some things that you could argue are racist. But I think that for many Americans, saying the “n” word is a big deal in a way that the “both sides” Charlottesville comment wasn’t. So if Omarosa leads us to the tape, that’s a big deal.

Otherwise, her book (which, yes, I thumbed through) is a dud.

ameliatd: I think it’s 5 Muellers — assuming that she’s able to keep the attention on her.

But I have not seen or read the book. What is dud-like about it, Perry?

perry: It just doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know — i.e., Trump is erratic and says racial and racist things.

micah: Yeah.

perry: Like on Monday.

ameliatd: I do think people who are able to turn Trump’s tactics against him can do some damage, but it’s really hard to predict how things will spin out. Which is why I am inclined to be hedge-y about Omarosa.

micah: OK, let’s wrap this up with some rapid-fire ratings …

John Brennan.

perry: 2 Muellers.

Trump’s decision to revoke the former CIA director’s security clearance was authoritarian, an aggressive move to silence a critic. But it’s a D.C./NYC story that doesn’t matter much to real people.

ameliatd: 2.

Yeah, in another universe, this might be a big deal, but it’s par for the course given Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community.

And the damage has already been done there — I don’t buy the speculation that this is going to have a chilling effect on law enforcement.

micah: Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels who has raised the idea that he might run president.

perry: 6 as a lawyer. It seems that the payment by Cohen to Daniels, which Avenatti made into a big issue, has helped lead us to the point where Cohen is potentially in a deal with prosecutors.

2 as a presidential candidate. He could be the Democratic nominee, I guess (Donald Trump is president; let’s not rule anything out). But I don’t see him as being a better candidate than Warren/Sanders/Biden/Booker, etc.

ameliatd: 5 Muellers.

Avenatti’s legal pursuits could help uncover new information, as Perry said — but it’s also difficult to win the kinds of cases he’s bringing. The presidential run seems … implausible?

micah: Anyone else you want to throw into the ring?

perry: William McRaven, who was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is blasting Trump over taking away Brennan’s security clearance.

This criticism is important in terms of illustrating how Trump is breaking norms. But politically, it’s not a game-changer — it’s the national security establishment hates Trump, Example No. 1,934. So that gets 1 Mueller.

ameliatd: I would put McRaven in the same category as Brennan. Important in an alternate universe, but won’t have an impact now.

micah: Final thoughts? It seems like you think Cohen is the biggest threat to Trump?

ameliatd: That’s what I think. It seems hard to imagine that he doesn’t have something that’s quite damaging to Trump. And even though the deal he’s cut doesn’t involve cooperation right now, he could still work with Mueller or prosecutors in the future.

perry: There are a lot of threats to Trump. But, yeah, I tend to think Cohen, like Amelia said, is connected to everything in Trumpworld. He has the most potential to reveal something about Trump that is very problematic. And he is not working at the White House. McGahn is in a role that I assume gives him some incentive not to bad-mouth the president.

ameliatd: Apart from Cohen’s understandable desire to stay out of prison, the stories about how Trump treated him over the years are pretty shocking

If Cohen has information to offer, it doesn’t seem like he has much of a reason to hold back.

micah: OK, let’s end with a question for readers … there’s a prominent member of the Trump administration who could be a threat to the presidency who we haven’t rated on the Mueller scale: Trump himself. How many Muellers would you give the president, from 1 to 10?


Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a writer and reporter living in Chicago.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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