For the first time, President Donald Trump faces a formal accusation that he personally broke the law to further his candidacy.
His longtime lawyer Mr Cohen told a court under oath that the money was paid “at the direction of a candidate for federal office”. In other words, that Mr Trump told Mr Cohen to break the law, then lied to cover it up.
This week’s events mean that Mr Mueller now stands on firmer ground. It will be harder for the president to dismiss him without it looking as though he is obstructing justice. And in such cases, convictions often lead to more convictions as those found guilty look for ways to save themselves. The question now is whether, and how far, Mr Manafort and Mr Cohen will turn against their former boss in return for leniency.
When voters elect someone who has bent the rules, it sets up a conflict between the courts and the electorate that is hard to resolve cleanly.
Mr Trump does not stand accused of getting his paperwork wrong, however, but of paying bribes to scotch a damaging story. That is a far more serious offense, and one that was enough to end the career of John Edwards, an aspirant Democratic presidential candidate, when he was caught doing something similar in 2008. There is no way of knowing if Mr Trump would still have won had the story come out. Even so, the possibility that he might not have done raises questions about his legitimacy, not just his observance of campaign-finance laws.
The authors of the constitution wanted to allow the president to get on with his job without unnecessary distractions. But, fresh from a war against King George III, they were very clear that the presidency should not be an elected monarchy. If a president does it, that does not make it legal. The constitutional problem that America is heading towards is that the Justice Department’s protocol not to prosecute sitting presidents dates from another age, when a president could be expected to resign with a modicum of honour before any charges were drawn up, as Nixon did. That norm no longer applies. The unwritten convention now says in effect that, if his skin is thick enough, a president is indeed above the law.
Thus far Republicans in Congress have stood by the president. The only thing likely to change that is a performance in the mid-terms so bad that enough of them come to see the president as an electoral liability.
Mr Cohen’s plea has made the president of the United States an unindicted co-conspirator in a pair of federal crimes. That makes this a sad week for America. But it is a shameful one for the Republican Party, whose members remain more dedicated to minimising Mr Trump’s malfeasance than to the ideal that nobody, not even the president, is above the law.
Read the complete article on The Economist.