Guilty findings put President Trump back on his heels
WASHINGTON — In two courtrooms 200 miles apart on Tuesday, President Trump’s almost daily attempts to dismiss the criminal investigations that have engulfed his White House all but collapsed.
Trump has long mocked the investigations as “rigged witch hunts,” pursued by Democrats and abetted by a dishonest news media. But even the president’s staunchest defenders acknowledged privately that the legal setbacks he suffered within minutes of each other could open fissures among Republicans on Capitol Hill and expose Trump to the possibility of impeachment.
In Manhattan, Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, admitted in court that Trump directed him to break campaign finance laws by paying off two women who said they had sexual relationships with Trump. And in Alexandria, Va., a jury found Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty of eight counts of tax and bank fraud — the most significant victory yet for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
A president who has labored under the cloud of investigations from almost the moment he took office, Trump now faces an increasingly grim legal and political landscape. Mueller is methodically investigating whether Trump and members of his campaign conspired with a foreign power to win the election — and whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation from the White House. And the president is months away from congressional elections that could hobble the second half of his presidency.
Democrats seized on the judgments against Manafort and Cohen — they both face years in prison — to argue that Trump was suffused by a culture of graft and corruption, an argument that could prove powerful for an already galvanized party in the midterm contests.
Inside the West Wing, aides to Trump — numbed and desensitized by breathless news cycles blaring headlines about the president’s behavior — said privately Tuesday afternoon that they were having trouble assessing how devastating the day’s legal events might be.
Trump’s advisers spent hours working on a statement that was attributed to his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, but privately several said they could not come up with something to explain away Cohen’s admissions beyond calling him a liar.
As he landed in Charleston, W.Va., for a rally with supporters Tuesday night, a grim-faced Trump sidestepped questions about Cohen. He defended Manafort as a “good man” who had been ensnared in an investigation that ranged far beyond its original mandate.
“It had nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump told reporters. “We continue the witch hunt.”
Later, the president largely ignored the dramatic courtroom events during a raucous rally in which his fervent supporters cheered the president’s usual rants about trade, illegal immigration, Democratic obstruction, and the news media.
“Where is the collusion? Find some collusion,” he said before shifting topics to declare that illegal immigration is “the beating heart” of the coming elections.
The effect of Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea on the investigation itself was unpredictable, according to legal experts. But Democrats said it put the lie to Trump’s argument that Mueller was engaged in a political investigation.
“It shows that Mueller and prosecutors in New York are conducting a professional investigation, following the facts where they lead, and obtaining serious felony convictions,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “They also dramatically increase the likelihood that both men cooperate with the government.”
Schiff said Cohen’s admission that he violated campaign finance laws in paying hush money to two women “adds to the president’s legal jeopardy,” though Trump’s advisers played down the likelihood that a sitting president would be indicted for such violations.
“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen,” said Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, in a statement. “It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
Cohen was blunt about the president’s culpability as he stood in court and admitted his guilt: “In coordination with, and at the direction of, a candidate for federal office,” Cohen said he conspired with a media company to keep secret Trump’s affairs with Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels.
“Mr. Cohen, when you took all of these acts that you’ve described, did you know that what you were doing was wrong and illegal?” the judge asked. Cohen answered, “Yes, your honor.”
The startling charge directed at the president carried echoes of President Nixon, who was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the special prosecutor’s investigation of Watergate.
And it raised the prospect that Trump’s presidency could be at risk by impeachment in Congress even if the sprawling Russia investigation never definitively concludes that there was collusion or obstruction of justice.
Cohen worked for decades as Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer. He was privy to the innermost details of the president’s business dealings and personal life — once saying he would take a bullet for him.
While Mueller’s investigation grinds on — reaching into the murky depths of Russian money laundering or Russia’s shadowy efforts to hack the 2016 election — Cohen’s case throws a white-hot spotlight on the behavior of Trump and his closest confidants.
It also makes it harder for Trump or his aides to distance themselves from Cohen’s wrongdoing. Though he also pleaded guilty to tax and bank fraud, related to his ownership of New York City taxi medallions, the heart of the case against Cohen is the payments to women he made on behalf — and at the behest of — his most celebrated client.
With Cohen’s plea, five associates of the president have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes since Trump took office. In addition to Cohen and Manafort, they include Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser; Rick Gates, the former deputy campaign chairman, and George Papadopoulos, who advised the campaign on foreign policy issues.
Trump’s mood tracked a tumultuous day. In the morning, the president was chipper, monitoring Fox News and commenting to aides on the headlines he saw, according to people who spoke with him. But Trump was already snappish with aides in the West Wing before the Manafort verdict was announced and before Cohen pleaded guilty, according to people familiar with his conversations.
By then, it had become clear that Cohen was likely to plead guilty to several crimes. Trump’s churlish mood had not lightened by the time he boarded Air Force One for the rally in West Virginia, and learned the details of his plea.
The president’s team quickly tried to paint Cohen as a liar, and noted that prosecutors had not targeted Trump.
People close to Trump privately acknowledged that the declarations from Cohen, made under oath in open court, could have significant political ramifications.
While impeachment discussions have always been treated as having a potential positive effect of turning out Republican voters, the statements Cohen made were stark and took it out of the realm of the theoretical.
“I think impeachment is now squarely going to define the midterms,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump. “It’s inescapable now that Democrats can legitimately raise that issue.”
He added, “There’s a lot of Republican members of Congress sitting in tough districts that are going to have to really think hard about how they’re going to finesse this in the days ahead.”
What makes it harder for Republicans, he said, is that this did not emerge from the Mueller inquiry. “This isn’t something from the deep state,” he said. “This is a classic B team type of bumbling screw up of covering up mistresses.”
And, he added, “It’ll be very hard to distance the president. You would assume that there’s legitimate evidence that the president was aware that those invoices were not for services rendered. You already have the one tape.”
Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that it was too early to say whether this would damage the president, but he noted he is already suffering with suburban voters.
“I think the president’s most ardent supporters will continue to defend him with blinders on but to any neutral observer watching this, it’s impossible to believe that Cohen would engage in this conduct without his client signing off on it or at least being aware of it,” he said.
“I think many will take a wait-and-see attitude,” he added. “What it does is serve as another tremendous distraction for Republicans running for re-election and already facing tough political headwinds. Every day that Republicans are being asked about legal questions surrounding the president is a day they’re not delivering the message they want to be delivering on the campaign trail.”