Local lawyers said President Trump faces “unprecedented” legal issues after his former attorney Michael Cohen admitted Tuesday to breaking campaign finance laws at the president’s behest, with one calling Cohen’s guilty plea “clearly the most pressing legal threat to Donald Trump to date.”
Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in criminal law and evidence, called Cohen’s guilty plea to eight charges “earth-shattering.”
“We have somebody declaring in open court that the now-president of the United States coordinated with him and directed him to commit a federal crime,” said Medwed.
Cohen is pleading guilty to two campaign finance charges. The first alleges that he worked with the National Enquirer to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal not to disclose potentially damaging information about Trump. The second involves a hush money payment to porn star Stephanie Clifford, who performs under the name Stormy Daniels.
Trump, McDougal, and Clifford were not mentioned by name in the court document known as a “criminal information” that lays out the charges Cohen was facing. The Justice Department has a policy of not naming a person in an information unless they’re being charged, said David S. Schumacher, an attorney at Hooper, Lundy & Bookman and a former assistant US attorney for Massachusetts.
But if Trump is prosecuted down the road, the fact that he was unnamed in Cohen’s case won’t be an issue.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Trump’s the unnamed person,” said Schumacher.
Cohen likely pleaded guilty because he would have faced a lengthier prison sentence if he had lost at trial, Medwed said. Cohen could spend four to five years behind bars, whereas if he fought the case, he could have faced decades in prison, Medwed said.
Cohen’s plea, Medwed said, “directly implicates” Trump in criminal conduct.
“Michael Cohen alone might not be enough to bring Trump in on a criminal case,” he said. “But this could provide the basis for pursuing an indictment against” Trump.
Stephen J. Weymouth, a veteran Boston defense attorney, said Cohen’s admissions show that he and Trump “basically participated in a conspiracy to violate campaign laws.”
“It seems to me that if it wasn’t the president, that person would have been indicted as well,” said Weymouth, noting he is not an expert on campaign finance law.
The Department of Justice has long had a policy against allowing an indictment of a sitting president — a policy that Weymouth questioned.
“I don’t see why there can’t be an indictment and then put it off for trial until after he’s done being president,” he said.
Weymouth said he suspected that Trump will eventually pardon both Cohen and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was convicted Tuesday in Virginia on eight counts in a financial fraud trial unrelated to Cohen’s case.
“Trump has been quite clear that he’s got the power to . . . pardon anyone, everyone, including himself,” he said.
Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday in media interviews that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump.
The jury in Manafort’s trial deadlocked on 10 counts, and the judge in the case declared a mistrial on those charges — meaning Manafort could find himself back in court to face those allegations again. He also faces a second, separate trial that is set to begin next month in Washington.
Unlike Cohen, Manafort has not implicated the president in any wrongdoing, but it’s possible he knows things that could be damaging to Trump and “was trying to be a stand-up guy,” Weymouth said.
Manafort’s calculus could change, though, now that he is facing prison time, Weymouth added.
“Maybe he does have information, and maybe now he thinks it’s time to start trading on it,” he said.
Weymouth said federal prosecutors might also have evidence of illegal acts by Trump’s two adult sons. Observers have speculated that Donald Trump Jr. may have broken the law when he met inside Trump Tower with Russians promising dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“This is unprecedented, and to a certain extent it’s like a circus. Why knows what’s going to happen next?” Weymouth said.
Though the president’s involvement makes Cohen’s case exceptional, at its base are all the hallmarks of a classic white-collar crime case, Schumacher said: “lying, cheating, and stealing.”
“It’s always about money,” said Schumacher.
How Cohen’s plea deal will affect the president, though, Schumacher said, is “the question on everyone’s mind.”
“It’s a pretty shocking development and clearly the most pressing legal threat to Donald Trump to date,” he said. “What does this mean for Donald Trump’s legal jeopardy? That’s something we don’t know yet.”
Medwed said the presidency likely will shield Trump — for now.
“My strong hunch is that he won’t be indicted until he leaves office,” said Medwed.
But he added, “This is a cloud that will not dissipate for the remainder of the 45th president’s reign. It’s not a question of politics. It’s just there. There is a strong basis for indicting him.”