If American justice were a movie, the arrest Monday of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates would be that big courtroom scene right before the credits.
The camera would pan back to some well-dressed international villain, pulled from the Smug British Actor of the Month Club, in an empty courtroom where the balding black judge (stern judges and police chiefs have always been black since the ’80s) is rattling off 12 counts: conspiracy against the United States; conspiracy to launder money; failure to register as a foreign agent; false and misleading statements related to that registration; false statements; and seven counts of improper foreign banking and financial reporting.
Two large cops would appear out of nowhere and handcuff the villain, E. Vale don Richerton, as he yelled, “Get your hands off of me! You’ll never get away with this! I have friends in high places,” and struggled as the cops dragged him off to jail.
In the back of the room, a battered and bloody Liam Neeson (or Matt Damon or even John Krasinski), having given his all to bring the bad guy to justice, would break a slight smirk, and walk out into a crowd of reporters knowing that the worst was over.
Of course, that’s the movies. What happened Monday was huge, but this is not over. In fact, with Monday’s indictments, the United States is actually entering one of the most dangerous periods in American history. Here are three things you need to know.
1. These are indictments, not convictions.
Manafort and his protégé Gates have been hit with a total of 12 charges by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigative team. Manafort has a long, horrid history of representing dictators in the United States and smoothing over the edges of dictators and dictators-in-the-making in Congo, the Philippines, Ukraine (and potentially the United States).
Manafort has more blood on his hands than a vampire surgeon, going as far back as the 1980s, when he was lobbying Congress on behalf of brutal regimes in Angola that carried out mass rapes and Mobutu Sese Seko’s violent regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Manafort’s own daughter apparently believes that he encouraged the mass shooting of protesters in Ukraine.
Manafort and his associates have probably violated the Foreign Agent Representation Act, which requires that you reveal to the United States when you’re lobbying for a foreign entity within the United States.
The most serious charge is “conspiracy against the United States,” which, given Manafort’s former stint as campaign manager for Trump in 2016, is a shot across the bow of the Trump administration.
However, before anti-Trumpers and #Resistance people get too excited, remember that these are indictments, not convictions. There is no timeline for how long a trial could last, nor any assurance that Manafort will be found guilty. He could get convicted; he could cut a deal. No one knows yet.
If anything, these charges might be part of the long game to flip Manafort and Gates as witnesses against Trump or others higher up on the food chain.
2. Impeachment is not a guarantee.
Allegedly operating as an older, white version of Remy Danton from House of Cards may make Paul Manafort an unethical guy, a human rights violator and a criminal, but that won’t necessarily mean that Donald Trump will be impeached.
The primary question driving the Mueller investigation is whether or not the Trump campaign team conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Even if Manafort turns on his former boss and Mueller recommends impeachment for collusion to Congress, that would not mean that Trump would be removed from office. Why? Impeachment is a political decision.
Impeachment charges are filed and passed by the House and then argued and voted on in the Senate. You have many Republicans in the House and the Senate who either don’t believe the Mueller investigation is legitimate, or at least aren’t willing to go along with any recommendations, no matter what happens.
As long as a Republican-controlled Congress is willing to accept Trump’s Shaggy defense when it comes to Russia, impeachment is not happening, no matter how much Manafort may sing under pressure.
3. Trump still holds American democracy in his hands.
This past May, political leaders, journalists and government scholars were terrified of the constitutional crisis the United States faced with the firing of James Comey and the potential for a special prosecutor.
Trump cares nothing for constitutional norms and behaves like a dictator with the full support of his Vichy Republicans in the House and Senate.
Trump has repeatedly tried to squelch the Russian investigation, and many feared that he would simply force Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire special prosecutor Mueller. Or, worse, reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” if Rosenstein wouldn’t let Mueller go, Trump would just keep firing people until someone did agree to fire Mueller for him.
The United States is at that precipice again. It was one thing for Trump to threaten Mueller, or float a raft of pardons before indictments were handed out, but now that it’s gotten real, who knows what he might do?
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has tried to pass a bill that would make it harder for Trump to fire a special prosecutor, but that bill hasn’t moved very far.
While currently there has been relative silence from Rosenstein, who knows what he is really thinking? To the degree that Mueller’s investigation might be the only real check on the influence peddling and grotesque corruption of the Trump administration, his position is very tenuous.
If Trump is afraid of what a charged Manafort might reveal or what other skeletons might be uncovered, he can still try to end the investigation, which would gut the last nonpolitical way to manage his presidency.
In the movies, the courtroom charging scene means it’s all over, justice will be done, and the epilogue will explain how much time the villain got and whether the hero’s ex-wife ever gave him another chance.
This isn’t a movie. Mueller’s charges are just the beginning, and we have no idea how much of a fight United States laws, rules and justice will face from this administration.