AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, leaves federal court in New York.

When your whole political career is built on a pack of lies, it is imperative that those who surround you be reading from the same page of the lie book. 

In this regard, President Donald J. Trump has often fared quite well, beginning with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s defenseof the president’s made-up figures for crowd attendance at his inauguration (the biggest ever), or White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s concoction of the phrase “alternative facts.” 

That’s what Michael Cohen, who served for decades as Trump’s personal lawyer, said he was doing when he testified before Congress that, by January 2016, Trump had stopped pursuing a deal in Moscow to build a new Trump Tower there. In court yesterday, according to The New York Times, Cohen explained, “I made these statements to be consistent with” Trump’s “political messaging.”

But now Cohen is singing a different tune for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s interference in the last presidential election, and any ties between Trump associates and figures with ties to the Russian government. Yesterday, Cohen entered a guilty plea to the charge of lying to Congress, admitting that a potential Trump-Russia real-estate deal was still in the works as late as July 2016—just a month before the Republican National Convention, and weeks after that famous meeting with Putin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnytskaya in Trump Tower that included Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and son Donald Trump Jr. The meeting was convened with the promise of dirt on Trump opponent Hillary Clinton, presumably collected by Russian intelligence.

Trump is said to be in a foul humor over Cohen’s plea, which seems to have scuttled the president’s planned side meeting at the G-20 gathering in Argentina today. But if the recent past is any indication, Trump’s outrageous antics—which include caging children at the border and flouting U.S. law by refusing applications for asylum from people who present themselves at facilities not designated ports of entry—are only likely to multiply. Think it was embarrassing when the U.S. president bailed on the leaders of German and France for a visit to a U.S. cemetery in Europe in commemoration of the soldiers who died in the First World War? (Trump was in a bad mood that day, too.) Think it galling that he refuses to accept the CIA’s assessment that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Just wait till whatever he comes up with next. As the Mueller investigation approaches its climax, it’s only going to get worse.

After news of his former attorney’s guilty plea broke, Trump was quick to disparage Cohen as a liar (ain’t that the pot calling the kettle?) and “weak,” apparently because he wasn’t willing to keep lying for Trump at his own expense. The president, in a rare moment of truth, also tweeted that there’s nothing illegal about conducting business while running for president. Fair enough. But there could be something illegal in attempts to hide the business one is conducting, or in lying to government bodies.

Because of his role as Trump’s “fixer,” Cohen the canary poses a singular threat to the president; he not only knows who got paid off for Trump’s peccadilloes, but likely how many times a certain Russian intelligence officer was contacted during the presidential campaign in Cohen’s efforts to broker a Trump Tower Moscow deal. 

The importance of the Mueller investigation to the preservation of the republic cannot be overstated. We need to know what can be learned of the extent of Russia’s subversion of our election process, and whether that subversion was done in coordination with the campaign that ultimately won the presidency. Because of the president’s temperament, however, it also poses dangers.

If Trump orders his new attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, to kill the investigation, we will find ourselves in a full-blown constitutional crisis. But even if he doesn’t, danger still lurks in the president’s reflexive defenses, which almost always involve harming other people as a means of displaying his own dominance. And their constitutional protections mean nothing to him.

Ultimately, the future of the republic may rest with the military. Will the generals defy an unconstitutional order from the president, as they are sworn to do?

The willingness of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former general, to comply with the political stunt that landed troops on the southern border, or to accede to the flouting of U.S. law on asylum is an ominous sign. Hopefully, his generals will not be put to the constitutional test. As the Mueller investigation builds to a crescendo, they may ultimately be left make a decision that decides the fate of the U.S. Constitution and the nation it created.

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