In two separate courthouses in two different states on the same day, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen found themselves staring down the barrel of long prison sentences. In New York, Cohen, Trump's longtime "fixer," pleaded guilty to crimes including tax evasion and breaking campaign finance laws at the “direction of a candidate for federal office.” In Virginia, Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, was found guilty on eight out of 18 charges relating to tax dodging and bank fraud, and a mistrial was declared on the remainder, meaning he could be retried. If Manafort gets convicted of all 18, he could face up to 305 years in prison; Cohen could be subject to 65 years and fines of $1.6 million.
The pair have had the most prominent, most schadenfreude-inducing falls from grace—or at least falls from wealth—in all of Trumpland. But the Tuesday afternoon massacre is also another example of a pattern anyone currently in the president's orbit should pay attention to: No relationship with Trump ever ends well.
That maxim was obvious well before the election—you just needed to ask the hundreds of contractors and laborers Trump reportedly screwed during his time as a real estate magnate. But it's remarkable just how badly fucked every single person who has ever so much as shaken Trump's tiny, weatherbeaten hands has gotten. A short list:
- Rex Tillerson, Trump's first secretary of State, was a respected oil executive before entering the administration, and left it in embarrassing fashion; he'll be remembered mostly for his incompetence.
- Michael Flynn, the general who endorsed Trump early in the campaign and got appointed as the national security adviser, was pushed out after it was discovered he lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador; he's waiting to be sentenced for lying to federal agents.
- Steve Bannon, whose racist version of populism helped inform so much of Trump's campaign rhetoric and helped put him over the top, lost his prominent post as a top White House aide without achieving any of his lofty policy goals. He now mostly rambles on about whatever to media outlets and has recently been hanging out in Hungary with that country's far-right prime minister.
- EPA head Scott Pruitt resigned in disgrace after being outlandishly corrupt even by 2018 standards.
- Health secretary Tom Price resigned after a scandal over his chartered flights.
- Former campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents, may now withdraw that plea after Robert Mueller's team recommended he get prison time. Either way, he's still in trouble.
- Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-allied data company, endured a multi-faceted scandal after it was revealed that it used improperly obtained data about Facebook users to help the Trump campaign. It shut down in May.
- James Comey was fired as FBI director after reportedly being asked by Trump for his "loyalty."
- Reince Priebus, Trump's first White House chief of staff, was forced out after presiding over one of the most chaotic West Wings of all time.
That's an incomplete list, and a mostly unsympathetic one to boot. If they didn't suffer humiliation because of their own corruption a la Pruitt, they hitched their careers to an unstable reality star and ended up being contradicted and humiliated in public a la Tillerson. But all of them (save for Comey, who wasn't appointed by Trump) were happy to ride the Trump train to greater power or influence—only to find out that the train was more of a rollercoaster that inevitably ends suddenly in a brick wall.
Being in Trumpworld means subjecting yourself to greater scrutiny from the media and potentially the Mueller investigation, which is how a relative nobody like Papadolous ends up facing prison time. It might mean being promoted way beyond your level of competence, which is how Omarosa Manigault Newman ends up running around the White House with a tape recorder. It means wondering whether you should resign when your boss praises white nationalists or bends over backward to Vladimir Putin.
Trump can't be blamed for all the misdeeds of his subordinates—Manafort's crimes, for instance, don't involve his work for the campaign. But he unquestionably creates a toxic, unpredictable environment, and it's no wonder that his administration winds up attracting only the very greedy, the very stupid, or the very related to him (with significant overlap between those categories). The smart people are staying as far away from the White House as they can, which might help explain why so many Republican congressmen have suddenly decided to retire. Joining up with Trump means not just dealing with his own mood swings but the backstabbing that is part and parcel of his White House. A White House job doesn't make you a criminal, but you may very well be sharing office space with one.
It's satisfying for Trump's opponents to watch the likes of Manafort and Cohen get cut down to size. Every criminal indictment, every resignation, damages the administration and (one would hope) makes it more likely that Trump will suffer defeats in 2018 and 2020. But then there's the catch, and the sinking feeling: These people, the ones being revealed as grifters of the most shameless sort, are the same people running our country.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.