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December 15, 2018

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Trump won’t go down without a fight

It didn’t take long Thursday for President Donald Trump’s tweeted complaint about the Robert Mueller probe — “will it just go on forever?” — to look like wishful thinking. Michael Cohen’s blockbuster court appearance made it clear that Trump is really going to hate the way the investigation ends.

Unless, of course, the president tries to end it himself with some sort of pre-emptive strike — which is why this is a dangerous moment. The walls are closing in, and by now we should know that Trump will put self-interest above such hindrances as the law and the Constitution.

With no advance notice, Cohen — who once was Trump’s personal attorney — appeared in federal court in Manhattan and admitted lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia.

Trump insisted during his presidential campaign that “I have nothing to do with Russia.” Cohen originally claimed in written testimony to the Senate and House intelligence committees that his attempts to forge a deal for a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow ended in January 2016 — before the first contest of the primary season, the Iowa caucuses, took place.

Court papers released Thursday tell a different story: Negotiating on behalf of the Trump Organization, Cohen continued to seek Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval for the proposed Moscow tower at least through June of 2016 — a fact that was hidden from voters by Trump’s bald-faced lies.

By far the worst development for Trump is that the document charging Cohen with the felony offense of making false statements to Congress is signed, “Robert S. Mueller III, Special Counsel.” Cohen’s earlier guilty plea involving hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal was handled by prosecutors from the Southern District of New York. Now, the keeper of some of Trump’s deepest and darkest secrets is singing sweetly to Mueller.

The second-worst thing for the president is Cohen’s acknowledgement that he regularly briefed Trump “family members ... within the Company” about the Moscow negotiations. This suggests that Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump may also be in Mueller’s crosshairs.

Trump gave the response he always gives when he’s caught in a big fat lie: I didn’t do it. But hey, if I did do it, it wasn’t a crime.

Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn, Trump said “Michael Cohen is lying.” But he added, “I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?”

For once, he let slip a nugget of truth. Running for president was just one of several angles he was pursuing at the time. Trump’s candidacy was never about the country. It was always about the family business, and still is.

Cohen’s court appearance came just a day after Trump said he was considering a presidential pardon for another keeper of his secrets — Paul Manafort, the former chairman of his campaign who was found guilty of a host of white-collar crimes and pleaded guilty to others. “Why would I take it off the table?” Trump asked, in a New York Post interview, about the possibility of pardoning Manafort, who faces a decade or more in prison.

Manafort had signed a deal pledging to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, but it was revealed this week that Manafort’s lawyers have been secretly sharing information with Trump’s lawyers. That becomes something else for Trump to worry about. How long had Mueller known that Manafort was playing both sides of the street? When the Trump team met to exchange information with the Manafort team, were the president’s lawyers hearing only what Mueller wanted them to hear?

Mueller charged that Manafort has been lying to him. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least some of those lies involve Manafort’s contacts with a Ukrainian associate who has “ties to Russian intelligence.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone and his associate Jerome Corsi have said they expect to be charged by Mueller over alleged contacts with WikiLeaks, which published emails damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign that were stolen by, get ready for it, Russian hackers.

All roads seem to lead to Russia, and they are beginning to converge. Each new move from Mueller comes out of the blue; no one can be sure how much he knows or what he might do next. Trump must increasingly feel cornered. The one thing I can predict confidently is that he won’t go down without a fight.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.