Trump And The World

Storm Looms For Trump After Courtroom Bombshells

The President's former lawyer pleads guilty on the same day his former campaign chairman is convicted of financial crimes. The hand of special counsel Robert S. Mueller is significantly strengthened. What happens now?

Bidding Mueller adieu
Tuesday's revelations weakened President Trump's hand.
Dan Balz

WASHINGTON — No day during President Donald Trump's 19 months in office could prove as dangerous or debilitating as Tuesday. Everything that happened in a pair of courtrooms hundreds of miles apart strengthened the hand of special counsel Robert Mueller III and weakened that of the president of the United States.

This was a day when truth overran tweets, when facts overwhelmed bald assertions. Presidential tweets, however provocative, eventually disappear into the ether. Tuesday's convictions could send two people who have had close relationships with Trump to prison for several years, while one of them brought the investigation to the doorstep of the White House.

What took place Tuesday will ratchet up the pressure on the president, will embolden his critics, and will no doubt inflame and rally his supporters. If the past months have seemed increasingly hot, the coming months could be hotter still - there's little doubt that the Trump presidency has now entered more treacherous territory, and no one can know where it will end.

This was a day when truth overran tweets.

Trump has tried everything to discredit Mueller's now wide-ranging investigation. He has blasted it as a witch hunt, called special counsel's team thugs, sought to make the operation into a purely partisan exercise. He has complained that Mueller has strayed far from his original mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. This month, the attacks escalated from volleys into a barrage, often multiple times a day.

On Tuesday, legal actions dropped with resounding force as a counter. By far the bigger blow for the president came in New York, where Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime former lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and campaign finance violations, including trying to buy the silence of two women whose stories he feared could influence the 2016 election.

In making that plea, Cohen implicated Trump in the campaign finance violation, saying he acted at the direction of a federal candidate - namely Trump. What evidence exists to corroborate Cohen's statement will await future legal developments and the public relations war that will intensify.

Michael_Cohen

Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud, and implicated Trump. — Photo: G. Ronald Lopez/ZUMA.

In Virginia, Paul Manafort, the president's onetime campaign chairman, was convicted on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud. A mistrial was declared on 10 other counts. None of the criminal activity related to Trump's 2016 campaign, but the convictions robbed the president and his team of any hope that the jury in Virginia would deliver a setback to Mueller's team. Instead, it did the opposite.

Tuesday's legal thunderclaps laid bare the vulnerability now facing the president. He and his lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, have waged a relentless public relations war against Mueller, while fencing over whether the president would agree to speak with Mueller's prosecutors about his knowledge of the events under investigation.

Giuliani has been no help to the president. Either by ignorance or design, he has tried so many lines of attack against the Mueller team that he has ended up contradicting himself, misstating the facts and been forced to explain away statements such as the one he made Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press' that "truth is not truth." Mueller's team has continued its methodical pursuit of what constitutes that truth to the best of anyone's ability to find it.

The attacks against Cohen came after a public embrace by the president and others. That embrace, of course, came before it was clear that Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, began to cooperate with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, after they scooped up a mountain of his documents and began to make clear just how many years in prison he could face for tax fraud and other violations.

Since then, Giuliani has been even more relentless in attempting to discredit Cohen, calling him a liar and much worse, in television appearances that proved to be no substitute for serious lawyering and a stout legal defense.

Cohen's stunning plea deal reset the table, and not in a way that the president can easily explain away. From claiming not to know about Cohen's payments to buy the silence of women who have alleged affairs with Trump to acknowledging that the president repaid Cohen for those payments, the story now has put Trump at the center of the decisions to do so, and in what prosecutors say is a violation of campaign finance laws.

Cohen's stunning plea deal reset the table, and not in a way that the president can easily explain away.

The president's first reaction to Tuesday's events came late in the afternoon, as he was arriving in West Virginia for a campaign-style rally. He called Manafort a good man, expressed disappointment that his former campaign chairman had been swept up in the Mueller investigation, and repeated his assertion that Mueller and his team are engaged in a witch hunt. "No collusion," he said again.

As for Cohen, he said nothing, an omission that blared out more loudly than his defense of Manafort and his denunciation of Mueller's work. Giuliani issued a statement asserting that there was no allegation of wrongdoing by the president in the charges against Cohen, a narrow reading of what took place in the courtroom in New York.

The Cohen conviction dealt another blow to the credibility of a president who frequently says whatever he wants, regardless of its accuracy, to advance his interests. But this one could have far greater implications than some of the president's other false claims. Prosecutors will decide how far to pursue this. Politicians will be asked what, if anything, they should do as well.

The Manafort conviction adds another layer to the mounting evidence that Trump has not, as he claimed, surrounded himself with "the best people." His White House has been a personnel shambles, with comings and goings at a record pace and with some far from the quality the president claimed.

His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Others have left in disgrace for their misdeeds. Meanwhile, Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was dismissed from the White House months ago, has been airing embarrassing audiotapes as she promotes a tell-all of her days as a White House staffer. Her credibility is minimal. That she was hired at all is the real concern.

On Tuesday, as the legal news was breaking, The Washington Post's Robert Costa reported that White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow hosted Peter Brimelow, the publisher of a website that promotes white nationalism, at a party at his home last weekend. This came after a White House speechwriter was let go for having appeared with Brimelow in 2016.

That speaks to the culture that has been created. Tuesday's developments speak even louder. They are concrete but not definitive. The president is dug in, feeling aggrieved by an investigation he believes was corrupted from the start, and he has gone off the rails since it fell into Mueller's hands. He has options, including attempting to shut down the inquiry, although he has been warned repeatedly of the consequences of doing so.

Mueller will continue to move forward, at a pace of his own choosing. Justice Department guidelines probably will inhibit him from doing anything dramatic in the early fall, ahead of the midterm elections. Whether more shoes will drop before Labor Day, only he knows. One way or another, the president faces many more months of uncertainty.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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