After one day where truth and facts triumphed, America is back to its alternative realities.
The convictions of two close associates of President Donald Trump in a mind-bending double-header drama in two cities on Tuesday were a moment of clarity in the legal morass that has thickened around the White House over the last 19 months.
Yet anyone who thought that being implicated in a crime in one of the most sensational political moments of recent history would soon temper Trump’s behavior, stop his White House peddling untruths or reshape the political terrain that sustains his presidency is being disappointed – at least for now.
Certainly, in years to come that tumultuous hour on Tuesday could turn out to be the moment when the Trump presidency began to unravel and the Teflon armor that shielded the President from scandals and outrages that would doom normal politicians was finally penetrated.
After all, months of obfuscation and attacks on Robert Mueller could not halt the legal process that’s likely to send former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the President’s former fixer Michael Cohen to jail for years. And the real meat of the special counsel’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia is yet to be revealed.
But in the immediate term at least, it seems nothing has changed in Washington.
The White House is back to peddling narratives that defy fact, attacking the media and lifting talking points from conservative opinion hosts. Trump is making new assaults on legal propriety. Republicans are dodging reporters in the Capitol to avoid being called to account for the President’s latest transgression. Democrats, owing to the GOP’s power monopoly in Washington, can only stir outrage and fire blanks – at least until the midterm elections.
’What in the world are we going through?’
Trump’s defenders can still argue that although Cohen and Manafort, and the already disgraced Trump acolytes Rick Gates and Michael Flynn, have been felled by Mueller, the President has not been charged or been proved to have colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.
But his attitude on Wednesday hardly fit the profile of someone who had done nothing wrong or who is convinced the legal process should be allowed to play out to its conclusion.
He made up a legal loophole to argue that the hush money paid to women before the 2016 election who alleged they had affairs with him – payments Cohen said were made at his direction – did not break the law since it did not come from campaign funds.
“They didn’t come out of the campaign and that’s big,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “It’s not even a campaign violation.”
Trump is also again brazenly tearing at the boundaries of presidential decorum, dangling the possibility of a pardon before Manafort, who might just be tempted to cooperate with Mueller, now that he’s probably going to jail for most of the rest of his life.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!” Trump tweeted.
Former Watergate special prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste bemoaned the possibility that the President might be considering a pardon for a man convicted of massive tax fraud and called on political leaders to come together to head off a moment of national peril.
“What in the world are we going through in this country?” Ben-Veniste told CNN’s Erica Hill.
At the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders held a previously unscheduled briefing to press home the President’s counterattack.
She dismissed the notion that Trump was in legal trouble at all over Cohen’s accusation, which effectively boiled down to the sitting President of the United States being accused of a crime.
“As the President has said and we’ve stated many times, he did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him and we’ve commented on it extensively,” she said.
When asked by a reporter whether Trump’s now-discredited statement on Air Force One that he knew nothing about the payment to former porn star Stormy Daniels, she attacked the messenger:
“I think that’s a ridiculous accusation. The President, in this matter, has done nothing wrong.”
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are stuck in their perpetual dance, tiptoeing around Trump’s latest misadventures in fear of his Make America Great Again base. House Speaker Paul Ryan, once seen as the moral conscience of the GOP, is nowhere to be seen nor heard.
“I’m not very happy about it,” said Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, who earlier this year said the current presidency could be the greatest in history, but he added Wednesday that Trump should not be blamed for his staff.
Louisiana’s Sen. John Kennedy said he didn’t see what the fuss was about in the Cohen and Manafort convictions.
“You know, I’m sorry. I don’t see any deeper meaning in this other than you have to pay your taxes and you can’t lie on a loan application,” he told reporters.
South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, a sometime Trump golf partner, punted.
“Rather than answer a bunch of hypotheticals, I’ll do what I did in the Clinton – when Ken Starr issued his report. I read it, I’ll make a decision,” he said.
Democrats are gamely repurposing the latest Trump crisis in their almost certainly futile bid to scuttle the President’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, but are limited by their purgatory in the minority.
Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono nixed a meeting with Kavanaugh, to bolster Democratic calls for the nomination to be put on hold given Tuesday’s events.
But Democrats are also still wary of using the “I” word, partly to avoid giving Trump a rallying issue that could motivate his supporters in the midterm elections.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told The Associated Press on Wednesday that impeachment is still “not on the table” even though some liberals believe that if Trump did conspire with Cohen in the way it appears from his court testimony, he may have already committed a high crime or misdemeanor that is the standard for House of Representatives action against a President.
A ‘reckoning’ will come
It’s become a cliché that nothing – insulting war hero Sen. John McCain, cozying up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin or elevating white supremacists – derails Trump. Tuesday’s events could become just another data point in that trend. And if the special counsel finds no evidence of collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice, Trump will be able to credibly assert that his name is clear.
But no one knows where Mueller’s probe will lead, if Trump or his campaign is guilty of collusion or obstructing justice. Presidencies can take years to unravel, as the varied experiences of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter show.
There’s also little doubt that Tuesday’s legal stunners, and the news that White House Counsel Donald McGahn testified to Mueller for 30 hours, have seeded new dark clouds around the President that could manifest themselves in ways impossible to predict right now.
And while Democrats are currently powerless, they could cripple Trump’s presidency and make his life a misery with incessant investigations if they win the House in November
A Democratic rout would prompt Republicans to consider whether sticking with Trump and a strategy solely reliant on his base is wise in the 2020 election.
So while it may seem that Trump’s political and legal luck is holding, it may erode over time and the furor surrounding Tuesday’s convictions could be a major reason why.
Some Trump opponents are still optimistic that the President is set for a demise.
“I believe in the wisdom and the good faith of the American people,” Norm Eisen, White House ethics czar during the Obama administration, said on CNN International.
“Let’s let it unfold. He is going to meet his day of reckoning.”
CNN’s Clare Foran and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.