As two more close of Trump’s closest allies face jail time, will Trump eventually find himself in the firing line?
When bad news punches you in the gut it’s really hard to bounce back – but there’s nothing like a double blow of shocking, terrible news straight to the face to knock you down and out.
And yet, that’s exactly the position Donald Trump finds himself in this morning as one of his closest allies has pleaded guilty to breaking campaign law while another was convicted of serious financial crimes.
It’s tough, it seems, to be the president.
What exactly are Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort guilty of?
Yesterday, Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, 51, pleaded guilty in a New York court to violating campaign finance laws at the direction of “the candidate” for the “principal purpose of influencing [the] election”.
According to the Guardian, Cohen claimed Trump directed him to make payments that violated campaign finance laws in an effort to stop porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model and Karen McDougal going public about alleged extramarital affairs.
In total, Cohen admitted eight counts, including tax and bank fraud as he sought to reduce his prison sentence from a maximum of 65 years to around five, according to the BBC.
Cohen will be sentenced on 12 December and was released on a bail of $500,000 (£390,000).
Meanwhile, Paul Manafort – Trump’s former campaign manager – was found guilty by a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, of bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account, stemming from his political work for exiled Ukrainian president and close Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych.
The charges could see him serve decades in prison – and Manafort, 69, faces a second court case in Washington DC next month.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Noah Bookbinder, a former federal prosecutor, said in a statement about the Manafort verdict: “The president’s former campaign chairman has just been convicted of very serious crimes. Paul Manafort engaged in corrupt behavior and illicit self-enrichment for years, and it appears he tried to use the Trump campaign as a way to get out of a major financial hole. It remains to be seen how many others in the orbit of the Trump campaign and administration are implicated in corrupt conduct; it seems far too prevalent.
“We applaud the Department of Justice on this important conviction. This is just the latest conviction for Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, as multiple defendants have already pleaded guilty, and it likely will not be the last. This investigation is moving quickly and effectively, and it will continue bringing us closer to the truth.”
How has Trump reacted?
Before addressing a rally in West Virginia last night, Trump, 72, addressed reporters to essentially distance himself from Manafort and claim the result has nothing to do with his campaign or his presidency.
“It's a witch hunt and it's a disgrace.” @realDonaldTrump says Paul Manafort’s guilty conviction on eight counts has nothing to do with Russian collusion. He refused to comment on Michael Cohen separately pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws. pic.twitter.com/R1WNgoMcoc— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) August 22, 2018
And on Twitter he later slammed his former lawyer Michael Cohen:
If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. “Justice” took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” - make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
The expert opinion…
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law scholar who mentored Barack Obama, is one America’s most prominent constitutional lawyers and recently penned a book about impeachment called ‘To End a Presidency’. Here he tells ShortList what the Cohen and Manafort results could mean for the president…
What do the decisions show about Robert Mueller’s investigation?
“Cohen’s guilty pleas show that the Mueller investigation has already led to independent proceedings in New York — proceedings that cannot be undermined by Trump’s attacks on Mueller and his team — uncovering impeachable offenses by Trump in criminally winning the presidency.
“The eight Manafort convictions are a breath-taking vindication of the effectiveness of the Mueller operation, which has much more to unveil.”
How likely is it that Manafort and Cohen will work with the Mueller investigation?
“It’s certain that Cohen will work with Mueller but very hard to predict whether Manafort will.”
What do these decisions mean for Donald Trump?
“These decisions are about as bad for Trump as they could be. As Winston Churchill famously said, ‘This is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.’”
Meanwhile, Ross Garber, who teaches about political investigations and impeachment law at Tulane Law School, told ShortList: “Cohen has expressed eagerness to cooperate with prosecutors and to tell them everything he knows. He has been a lawyer for Donald Trump and his organization for many years, so he probably has substantial insight into the president’s business and personal lives. I expect prosecutors will be interested in hearing what he has to say. Cohen may have limited use as a witness, though, given that a jury may not find what he says believable.
“As for Mr. Manafort, I would be surprised if his convictions change his strategy and cause him to cooperate. The evidence in the case was substantial, and he no doubt knew he was likely to be convicted. Generally, one benefits substantially from cooperation only if it happens before trial. Manafort may be hoping for a presidential pardon.”
What’s next for Donald Trump?
From a legal perspective, this certainly feels like the most precarious position Trump has found himself in over the course of his presidency so far.
“This is the worst hour of Trump’s entire presidency – no, make that entire life,” tweeted Norman Eisen, a former ethics and government reform adviser to President Barack Obama.
this is the worst hour of Trump's entire presidency--no, make that entire life— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) August 21, 2018
And all this raises the question of whether Manafort or Cohen could offer to work with Robert Muller, who is leading the investigation that secured the results, in return for lighter sentences.
Cohen lawyer Larry Davis heavily suggested such a deal could be on the table when he tweeted: “Today [Michael Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?
“This is a new beginning for Michael Cohen, his chance to tell the ‘rest of the story.’”
Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?— Lanny Davis (@LannyDavis) August 21, 2018
This is a new beginning for Michael Cohen, his chance to tell the “rest of the story.” On July 2nd Michael announced his independence and his commitment to tell the truth. (1 of 2)— Lanny Davis (@LannyDavis) August 21, 2018
Now @MichaelCohen212 is committed to continue to do so going forward as can be seen from his sworn statement in federal court today about @realDonaldTrump instruction to @MichaelCohen212 to pay money to 2 women that Mr. Cohen admitted was a campaign finance law violation (2 of 3)— Lanny Davis (@LannyDavis) August 21, 2018
If that’s not a threat (promise?) to start spilling the beans then we’re not sure what is.
Other legal and political commentators weighed in to argue that the legal results could further implicate Donald Trump.
CNN’s senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin tweeted: “Cohen committed crimes ‘In co-ordination with, and at the direction of’ @realDonaldTrump. Thus, President appears to be co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor of a federal crime.”
And conservative writer and commentator Bill Kristol added: “Just spitballing here, but if Flynn is guilty, and Manafort’s guilty, and Cohen’s guilty…maybe Trump’s guilty?”
Just spitballing here, but if Flynn is guilty, and Manafort’s guilty, and Cohen’s guilty...maybe Trump’s guilty?— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) August 21, 2018
What do the decisions show about Mueller’s investigation and where it could lead?
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the Cohen and Manafort decisions is that it proves Robert Mueller’s team can successfully secure convictions.
So when they turn their focus to the Trump team – and the president himself – over the question of Russian collusion, will they be similarly successful? Time will tell.