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We stand face to face with the idea that the president committed a felony

After “the information” regarding Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas stated flatly that Cohen had been directed to violate campaign finance law by Donald Trump, you can put the Russia probe aside for a moment and consider the many possible meanings of what Cohen has done:

  1. He has pled guilty to a felony. He says Trump did it with him. If he is telling the truth, Trump committed a felonious act before he was president. So if Trump is guilty of a felony, why isn’t he being indicted?
  2. Justice Department guidelines say an indictment of a sitting president would impair the executive functions of the presidency and the performance of his constitutionally assigned tasks. These guidelines were first issued under a Republican president (Nixon) and reaffirmed under a Democratic president (Clinton), so they have bipartisan street cred. That said, they are guidelines. They are not law. A complex Constitutional theory has it that, since the executive branch has a unique structure in that the exercise of its powers flow through the president personally as the sole official elected by all the people, it makes no sense that the president could in essence indict himself. Any person who would indict himself would presumably resign his office before doing so. Still, this entire discussion is predicated on the assumption that the president committed a felony.
  3. The question then goes to whether a campaign-finance violation is sufficient grounds to remove someone from the presidency—either through a rejection of the Justice Department guidelines that sees him being indicted or through an impeachment proceeding followed by a Senate vote to kick him out. That’s a good question. But any way you look at the question, you’re still looking this fact in the face: The president committed a felony.
  4. Those who defend him on the grounds that he shouldn’t be removed from office for this offense, as it does not rise to the level, must still acknowledge that the president committed a felony.
  5. There will be those—Trump is already one of them—who will say that Barack Obama’s campaign was found guilty of campaign finance violations and only had to pay a significant fine. But that’s a different kind of case, because nobody says Obama himself ordered such violations. Once again, though, we stand face to face with the idea that the president committed a felony.
  6. Trump is also fond of saying, in other contexts, that everybody does these kinds of things, we should all grow up and look reality in the face.”Everybody does it” is fine as a debating point, perhaps, but it doesn’t address how you handle an open discussion of wrongdoing. In truth, only three times in the modern era has the American polis had to face the possibility that the sitting president committed a felony.
  7. Once the president resigned rather than face impeachment. Once the president beat the charge. Trump is the third president about whom we have to have a continuing conversation that seems to accept the contention he committed a felony.
  8. It is very bad for people to commit felonies. Donald Trump does not seem to believe this, perhaps understandably. He is on Twitter today actively defending his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort—based largely on the fact that Manafort didn’t “break,” unlike Michael Cohen. Manafort has just been found guilty by a jury of his peers of committing eight felonies.
  9. Unless it can be proved somehow that he did not tell Cohen to violate campaign-finance law, Trump is clearly going to force Republican politicians and Republican supporters to make a choice: Him personally or the rule of law and the principle that no president is above the law. He will threaten them with the anger of his base if they decide they cannot countenance a president who committed a felony.
  10. It’s not going to be pretty.

The luxury of righteous indignation.

The crisis in Yemen resulting from nearly four years of war seemed to reach an inflection point on August 9, when 40 boys between the ages of six and 11 were killed.

That sprawling conflict involving Saudi-led coalition forces has produced human misery on an industrial scale. Regular access to food and potable water has been disrupted throughout the country. The spread of cholera infection has reached epidemic proportions. The United Nations warned in May that millions face the prospect of starvation. And then 40 children were killed by a bomb.

According to investigators, that bomb was a laser-guided version of an Mk-82 bomb called a GBU-12 Paveway II. This is a Lockheed Martin product, and one of the thousands of similar munitions the United States sold to Saudi Arabia.

In March, 55 U.S. senators rejected a bipartisan effort to halt aid to the Saudis amid what had become a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but this atrocity has renewed calls for U.S. divestment from the conflict. The discovery of American bomb fragments at this site made international headlines, and the coverage has a tone of moral urgency to it. Once again, activist groups and American lawmakers are asking why this violence is being committed in our names?

Elsewhere in Yemen, another American bomb is making headlines of a different sort. On Tuesday, American and Yemeni officials revealed that they have high confidence a U.S. drone strike killed Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was described by Barack Obama’s former acting CIA Director Michael Morell as “probably the most sophisticated bomb maker on the planet.”

The Saudi-born bomb-maker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) made the sophisticated device that was smuggled onto a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009. That bomb malfunctioned because the “underwear bomber” had accidentally “degraded” the fuse. The following year, Asiri managed to smuggle bombs onto cargo planes destined for the United States. Those devices were designed to detonate simultaneously above two American cities, and the plot was only thwarted due to a last-minute tip to Saudi law enforcement. In 2009, Asiri recruited his own brother to conduct a suicide attack in the Jeddah palace of a Saudi prince.

Asiri is one of many AQAP leaders and mid-level commanders dispatched by U.S. drone patrols in Yemen, and Americans are safer because of those operations. Those American bombs get less attention than the munitions the United States provides to Saudi Arabia and its allies around the world, but they are all part of the same campaign.

The bomb that killed 40 young boys on August 9 was part of a shipment to Saudi Arabia that was approved by the State Department in 2015, under President Barack Obama. That was not a particularly controversial move at the time. By then, the president was facing bipartisan criticism from lawmakers for being too cautious about engaging in the nascent Yemeni civil war. “We need some special operations in these countries on the ground,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told CBS News amid a new wave of Islamist terror in the Middle East, “more than just advisors.” She was right.

In late 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency seized vast swaths of territory in Yemen, including the capital of Sana’a. Washington’s desperate need to maintain good relations with the government in Yemen initially led the Obama administration to make overtures of friendship toward these militants. Those overtures were publicly rebuffed. The possible disruption of America’s anti-terror operations in this theater wasn’t the only peril this new conflict posed.

After taking Sana’a, the Houthis descended on the strategic port of Aden, which is situated on the vital Bab al Mandab Strait. That tiny, two-mile-wide northbound shipping lane leads directly into the Suez Canal and provides every port on the Indian Ocean with access to the Mediterranean and Europe. If the Houthis captured it, Iran would be free to shut the strait by deploying mines or harassing shipping vessels. No American administration, Republican or Democratic, would tolerate such a threat to international trade and global security.

The Obama administration happily outsourced the job of rolling back Iranian influence in Yemen to the Saudis and their regional partners, but the alternative to a Saudi-led war is not American disengagement. It is direct American engagement. As recently as July, a coordinated attack on two Saudi tankers by Yemeni rebels in the Gulf of Aden prompted Riyadh to shut down transit through the strait and caused a spike in global oil prices. This is a crisis that cannot be ignored by the world’s lone superpower. The only question is what form American involvement in this conflict will take.

There is a tragic irony in the position of those who are appropriately enraged by the senseless murder of children. If American guided munitions were called onto targets by American observers on the ground in Yemen, it’s entirely possible that the kind of needless death that occurred on August 9 might have been avoided. But who thinks that direct U.S. intervention would mollify anyone condemning U.S. support for Saudi-led operations? Calling for immediate American disengagement, as so many liberal and libertarian lawmakers have done, is not a serious approach. It is a luxury available only to those who are not responsible for the preservation of the U.S.-led global order.

War is terrible. In war, people die, often needlessly. Americans did not start the civil war in Yemen, but neither can they afford to ignore it. Pragmatic lawmakers have offered alternative paths to de-escalation that also preserve America’s position in the region. Unfortunately, that kind of sobriety is mocked as a half-measure by those who believe that pounding the table protects their moral authority.

Being a speechifying firebrand means never having to take responsibility for American lives and treasure unnecessarily lost to passivity. Fortunately for the rest of us, the stakes are far higher for those who sit behind the Resolute Desk.

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