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This may be 'end of the beginning' of tawdry Trump mess

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Attorney Michael Cohen walks out of federal courthouse after pleading guilty to campaign finance fraud and tax evasion in New York City on Tuesday. Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI
Attorney Michael Cohen walks out of federal courthouse after pleading guilty to campaign finance fraud and tax evasion in New York City on Tuesday. Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI | License Photo

In mid-1942, amid many Allied setbacks in World War II, the Axis powers lost two stunning battles. The U.S. Navy won a resounding victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway. And the Soviet Army repulsed the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad.

When asked if this was the beginning of the end of the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill responded that this was not the beginning of the end. Rather he thought, this was "the end of the beginning."

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President Donald Trump is in the midst of a political nuclear firestorm over the conviction of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight of 18 counts and the guilty plea of his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for violating campaign financing rules and tax evasion. Cohen stated under oath that he was directed by Trump to pay off a porn actress and Playboy Playmate just before the November 2016 election, in direct violation of campaign law.

Further, while Trump has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and any "collusion" with the Russians, his protests are shrouded with doubt. His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The substance of those meetings was never revealed, leaving open the issue of any complicity. The Republican platform was amended at the convention to downplay attention to Ukraine and Russian seizure of Crimea. Manafort, then campaign chairman, received millions from the former Kiev government.

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Donald Trump, Jr. took a meeting in which an email informed him that a senior representative of the Russian government had negative information about Hillary Clinton. That meeting took place. And Trump Sr. lied about it.

Aside from the president's most fervent supporters, Trump's conduct and performance in office has been anything but presidential. The truth and the president are rarely in contact. The Washington Post reported that on some 4,300 occasions, the president misstated, lied or failed to tell the truth. His character, ethics and judgment do not reflect what Americans expect and should demand from their president. Too often his twittering is a national embarrassment,

No matter how destructive, his cancellation of the Paris Climate Accord; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran; the Trans Pacific Partnership; the imposition of tariffs; his treatment of people, particularly staff; and his uncanny ability to choose advisers with huge personal flaws do not constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors" that rise to the level of disqualifying him from office. And while many believe or hope that Cohen's testimony alleging the president broke the law will prove sufficiently incriminating to warrant some form of action, do not count on that.

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In reality, this may still be the beginning of a process that could, and the operative word is could, trivialize Watergate. The second trial of Manafort to begin after Labor Day over money laundering and representing foreign governments could prove far more explosive than his first. After all, Russian oligarchs have spent many millions buying Trump condos and one of his Palm Beach homes. That Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, long suspected of being a money-laundering outlet for Russian oligarchs, adds to suspicion of where Trump may have received funding.

But none of this is a smoking gun or indeed a smoking howitzer. It may well be that the U.S. attorney for New York's Southern District or special counsel Robert Mueller has hard evidence of actual corruption and illegal activities on the part of the president, his family, his campaign and his administration. However, until such hard proof is made public, the intense and understandable scrutiny of the media and cable television -- if only for the entertainment value -- is simply speculation.

Allies and enemies of the president have drawn entirely opposite conclusions based on the same reports and public information. The intensity of the animosity on both sides is difficult to underestimate. Still, the wisdom of Sir Winston should apply.

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This is the "end of the beginning" and not the beginning of the end of this tawdry process. Nonetheless, the direction that all this is headed does suggest there will be an "end." The questions are when and what. And that "end" may not look favorably on Trump.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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