WASHINGTON — Moments after Donald Trump's former personal attorney implicated the president of the United States in a felony, Sen. John Cornyn declared “People who do bad things, who break the law need to be held accountable.”
Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, quickly made clear his statement wasn't aimed at Trump.
For Republicans, Tuesday's courtroom drama revived an uncomfortable and all-too-familiar predicament. On a seemingly weekly basis, party leaders and lawmakers have found themselves trying to explain away a slew of Trump-generated controversies, hoping that occasionally stern statements can carry them through until the latest round of chaos blows over. It's a strategy the party has leaned on through Trump's refusal to unequivocally blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, through his statements equally blaming white supremacists and counterprotesters for violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and through his numerous insults aimed at women and minorities.
But Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen's extraordinary plea deal — it came less than an hour after former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight financial crimes — ups the pressure on the GOP in a midterm election year.
Cohen's plea marks the first time a Trump associate has been found guilty of a crime directly related to the 2016 election. And it's a crime Cohen says Trump was not only aware of, but personally involved in carrying out.
“This is a huge threshold we just crossed today,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic operative who specializes in Trump opposition research.
Yet the initial response from Republicans offered little indication that the party planned to treat Cohen's revelations any different than the numerous other controversies that have dogged Trump during his 17 months in office. Most GOP lawmakers simply said nothing about Cohen's guilty plea. One of the few statements from Republican leaders came from an unnamed spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said the speaker was aware of Cohen's plea to “these serious charges” and needed “more information than is currently available at this point.”
By now, the political calculus for Republicans is clear. Lawmakers see little incentive to distance themselves from Trump when even his most egregious statements do little to shake his support from Republican voters. The president's command of the party faithful was on display Tuesday night when he delighted a friendly crowd at a West Virginia rally for more than an hour. At this point, the only GOP officials who have consistently spoken out against the president are those who aren't running for re-election and don't need Trump backers on their side in the midterms, such as retiring Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Democrats believe they can motivate independent voters and moderate Republicans this fall by casting GOP officials as willing enablers of the president. Party operatives quickly made clear Tuesday that they plan to pummel Republicans through the fall campaign if they stay silent on the mounting legal questions swirling around the president.
“There's more weight on the scales every day,” said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster.
Charlie Kelly, who runs the House Majority PAC backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, warned Republicans that the investigations are getting “closer and closer to the White House.”
Cohen didn't directly name Trump in court, but said he and an “unnamed candidate” arranged hush money payments to two women. The amounts and the dates of the payments lined up with money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to buy their silence in the closing weeks of the campaign about alleged affairs with Trump.
The president has repeatedly denied knowledge of the payments, and he avoided reporters’ questions about Cohen on Tuesday. He also notably avoided weighing in on both Cohen and Manafort during a free-wheeling rally Tuesday night in Trump-friendly West Virginia.
The moment presents some risk for Democrats, especially if they're seen as overly eager to impeach the president if they regain control of the House. Some Trump supporters, including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, are seizing on that prospect to encourage otherwise ambivalent Republicans to show up at the polls in November.
Still, at least one Republican suggested the legal fallout does create a vulnerability for Trump. Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a frequent Trump critic, predicted Tuesday's developments would prompt a primary challenge to the president in the 2020 campaign.
“You can count on it now,” she said.
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