Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and the risks of analytical optimism

Photo: S Nova via Wikimedia Commons

True analysts cannot afford optimism. To make an accurate prediction, you cannot let what you want to happen color what is likely to happen. But that’s exactly what I’ve seen in the wake of the conviction of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea from his former lawyer Michael Cohen.

Trump-haters are now optimistic that Trump is on the way out. Trump-backers are equally optimistic that these developments will have no long-term effect. Both are wrong.

Manafort’s conviction will make no difference

A federal jury convicted Manafort on eight charges related to tax and bank fraud, and deadlocked on ten other charges regarding bank fraud and reporting violations. He’ll be back on trial for a second set of charges related to lying to the FBI, money laundering, and foreign lobbying without proper notice next month.

What does this mean for Trump and Republicans? Nothing at all.

None of the charges has anything to do with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump for working with Russian agents or obstruction of justice.

Those who hate Trump will cite the Manafort convictions as evidence that the Trump campaign included dishonest people committing federal crimes like tax evasion. They already believed this, and this won’t change their minds.

Trump loyalists will perceive this as irrelevant to the work Trump is doing in office. This won’t change their minds either.

Those on the fence may be wondering whether the actions Trump is taking, which they may like, are worth putting up with Trump’s boorish and increasingly chaotic behavior. This conviction doesn’t reveal anything that will help them decide.

Republicans in Congress are unlikely to take any action regarding the activities of Trump’s former campaign chairman. Democrats don’t have the numbers to do anything.

I don’t expect this conviction to affect Trump’s popularity. In the midterm elections, this conviction won’t change people’s minds about candidates.

There is no reason to believe that Manafort can reveal anything relevant to Mueller about his investigation of Trump.

Should the Democrats take over a House majority in the midterm election, any action they take will be more likely about Trump’s perceived activities, rather than the activities of his former campaign chair.

Bottom line: there’s another crook in Washington. Trump had bad judgment in who he hired. Not news.

Cohen’s guilty plea will have repercussions, but this isn’t “the beginning of the end”

It’s at most “the beginning of the beginning of the end.”

Cohen’s plea is more relevant to Trump’s fortunes than Manafort’s conviction. Cohen admitted to a federal crime: that at Trump’s direction, he paid off two women who had had affairs with Trump for the purpose of influencing the election. This amounts to an unreported campaign contribution of almost $300,000; the crime is similar to the one for which John Edwards was indicted in 2011. Despite Rudy Giuliani’s statement that there is no allegation of wrongdoing by Cohen, it’s clear that Cohen is implicating Trump in a campaign finance violation.

If you’re believe this will end Trump’s presidency, you’ve allowed your optimism to cloud your judgment. Allow me to dash your hopes:

  • Republicans will not impeach Trump before the new Congress takes office next year. An impeachment would require 20 Republicans to join Democrats, and could happen only if Paul Ryan allows it. There’s no way that would happen before the election; it would force Republicans to vote on an issue where taking either side would alienate many voters they need to be reelected.
  • Republicans will not censure Trump. A censure is a step that falls short of impeachment. This action is slightly more possible than an impeachment, but for the same reasons, I think Republicans have too little to gain and too much to lose to act this way, regardless of whether a censure would be warranted based on the facts. They might censure Trump if they’re still in the majority after the election.
  • Cohen will cooperate with Mueller, but the results of that are in the future. Cohen knows a lot about what Trump did, although it’s not clear if any of it relates to Russia or obstruction. Cohen’s cooperation will help reduce the length of his sentence. But Mueller will need to corroborate any testimony he has, which will take a month or more.
  • Trump will not pardon Cohen. If Trump pardoned Cohen, Cohen would still face many possible state charges on the same crimes, charges for which Trump cannot issue pardons. Zephyr Teachout, who is running for New York Attorney General, has already said she will attempt prosecution. And if Trump pardoned Cohen, Mueller could subpoena him and compel him to testify, since at that point he cannot incriminate himself. Finally, Cohen’s lawyer has said Cohen would refuse any pardon. Given these factors and the inevitable political fallout from a pardon, it’s unlikely that Trump would attempt to pardon Cohen.
  • If Democrats take over the House of Representatives, they’ll impeach regardless. Cohen’s admission creates another charge for Democrats to hold Trump responsible for — campaign finance violation. This charge will show up in an impeachment hearing, but there are plenty of other charges for Democrats to hold Trump responsible for, such as firing FBI director James Comey to obstruct justice.
  • Cohen’s charges are not sufficient to generate a conviction in the Senate. If there is an impeachment, the Senate would need to take a two-thirds vote to convict President Trump and remove him from office. Even if Democrats win control of the Senate, which is unlikely given the number of seats they are defending, their majority will be at most one or two seats. Trump’s opponents will never convince 15 Republican Senators to join Democrats and convict and remove Trump solely on a campaign finance violation. If they did, they would then face the wrath of Trump voters.
  • Trump won’t resign. Resigning would require shame along with the idea that Trump believed resigning would be better for the country — and that he would put the well-being of his country before his own ambitions. There’s no sign of that happening.
  • Republicans Senators will vote on and confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Now that Kavanaugh has said he believes Roe v. Wade is settled law, the pro-choice Republicans Susan Collins and Linda Murkowski will vote to confirm him. None of this scandal will stop Republicans from accomplishing their goal of putting in place a conservative Supreme Court Justice, regardless of shrill protests from outraged Democrats.

If you are a Trump backer and you believe that Trump’s troubles are over, you’ve also allowed your optimism to get in the way.

  • Cohen will keep singing. This is the beginning of weeks of Cohen testimony to Mueller and the FBI. If Cohen knows anything about Trump’s dealings — and he surely does — we’re going to eventually hear about it.
  • Mueller will keep investigating. There are two months before election day. Mueller won’t be done this month, and he won’t release his report just before the midterm election. So his report will come out in November at the earliest. I’m betting on the day after the election.
  • Trump won’t have Mueller fired. It is now too close to the midterm election for Trump to take an action as incendiary as firing Mueller without hurting Republican’s chances. So if that is going to happen, it will happen after the election. Even then, it’s a dangerous move, since Democrats in Congress will subpoena those records and Mueller’s testimony as soon as he’s fired.

So, putting your optimism aside, what will happen now?

  • A continuing litany of revelations from Cohen — and leaks about them — will tilt the election. A constant drip-drip-drip of negative headlines will probably help Democrats win the House.
  • The Mueller report will dominate politics at the end of 2018 and the start of 2019. Regardless of who’s in charge of Congress, the report will make it impossible to talk about anything else.
  • Trump will probably serve out his term. Until he’s up for reelection, there’s no way to get rid of Trump . . . unless Mueller’s report shows a Russia conspiracy so outrageous that failing to convict Trump would carry political risks for Senators. That’s unlikely.

The danger of optimism

Why even go through this exercise?

Because too often, I see analytical thinkers allowing their hopes to cloud their judgment. There is no better example than the fervent desire many have for Trump to go away.

What you want is not more likely to happen than what you don’t want.

What will happen depends on facts. Analyzing those facts along with trends, dependencies, and historical patterns, is your best guide to making predictions.

Wishful thinking is not analysis.

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    1. It might be worth reading some of Josh’s previous posts about the role of the analyst. That’s what he’s referring to in the first sentence. Essentially he’s not professing to be psychic (obviously) rather he is taking a position on the question and explaining his reasoning. He’s doing this to give useful analysis and information more than to be right.

  1. A few thoughts: contrary to popular belief, I do think Trump will resign. When? When Mueller seriously goes after the kids, especially Ivanka for money laundering. He’s already started in on Don Jr., which is an obvious beginning. Trump will come up with a medical excuse from his “doctor” and call it a day. In the past, through his various bankruptcies, he’s walked away from many deals. This will be just another one. Also, I don’t think Mueller’s done with Manafort yet. After all, he was present at the Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr. and the Russian lawyer spy. But, we’ll see.

    BTW, in the Cohen section, third sentence, you mean Cohen, not Manafort.

  2. Great post Josh, as usual. This circus has done nothing but rally the far left, and the far right. Until someone proves Trump actually committed a crime, and that he did so while in office, impeachment is a silly proposition. Despite the obvious optics and deficiency of morality, last time I checked, paying someone off for their silence is not a crime. Having an affair is not a crime ( just ask Willy C.). Employing people who commit crimes is also not a crime. So those hoping for impeachment have a long and frustrating road ahead.

    What’s most interesting to me is how this will shape the 2020 election – no matter what happens in the midterms. Will the circus be enough for Republicans to nominate a challenger to Trump? Will the Democrats cave to the so-called “democratic socialism” movement? Will one or both parties finally start to nudge toward the middle instead of moving farther apart? LMAO! Okay that last one reveals my own wishful thinking.

  3. Manafort’s conviction is a major defeat for Trump, it’s a knock down. He’s been put on the defensive by a Federal Jury’s decision. Just imagine how Trump would have screamed “Witch Hunt” against Mueller, though irrationally, if Manafort had been found not guilty by that same jury. Progress has been made.

  4. Carl, paying someone off may not be a crime, but doing it to influence an election and then not reporting the payoffs as campaign expenses is a crime, I believe, under election finance laws.

    1. Nancy, I don’t disagree with you there. The problem is, even if they can prove that Trump did in fact direct Cohen to make the payment, how are they going to prove his intent? Proving the intent behind an action in any case is practically impossible in court. Proving Trump’s intent, and that the result definitively influenced the election? I don’t see it happening.