Is Donald Trump doomed, after the most disastrous day of his presidency?
‘I think we’ve established today that we have a criminal president, and that is historic’
US President Donald Trump suffered through perhaps the worst day of his presidency on Tuesday.
His personal lawyer directly implicated him in a crime. At almost the same moment his former campaign chairman became a convicted felon.
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to illegal campaign finance charges over hush money paid to a porn actress and a former Playboy model, all but naming Trump as having ordered him to do it – although Cohen’s lawyer did just that outside court, and said that if Cohen was guilty, so was Trump.
Moments after the charges were read aloud in a Manhattan courtroom, the president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud charges, boosting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The duelling sagas were the clearest sign yet of the political and legal peril that is increasingly threatening Trump’s presidency. While the legal ramifications will take more time to unfold, the political damage is already being felt, with Democrats seizing on the rulings.
“It’s a big day, it’s a bad day,” said John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, on the implications of Cohen’s plea on Trump and his presidency. “I think we’ve established today that we have a criminal president, and that is historic.”
A president who won election in part by labelling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, a criminal – complete with chants of “lock her up!” at campaign rallies – has now seen three close associates brought down by federal prosecutors, including his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Trump tried to shrug off the Manafort conviction, telling reporters Tuesday that “it had nothing to do with Russian collusion, so we continue the witch hunt.”
His lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, said the Cohen plea deal wasn’t related to Trump.
“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen,” he said 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’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, begged to differ.
“Today he (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,” Davis said in a statement after Cohen’s plea.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign was involved in Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections continues, even as Trump has been ratcheting up his attacks on the investigation. In an interview this week with Reuters, Trump suggested he could take control of the Russia investigation himself, but has chosen not to, so far.
Mueller handed off the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in New York, which means that his guilty plea intensifies a second – and entirely separate – investigation that could threaten the president.
Cohen didn’t name Trump in court, referring instead to a “candidate” who directed him to make the illegal payments.
A US prosecutor told the judge the purpose of the payments was to ensure that the individuals did not disclose “alleged affairs with the candidate.” In addition to a US$130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Cohen admitted to making an illegal contribution of US$150,000, which was how much former Playmate Karen McDougal received from the National Enquirer’s publisher to quash her story about an alleged affair.
Cohen has been under investigation since at least April, when the FBI raided his home and office.
Democrats immediately seized on the news to attack the president, as they look ahead to congressional elections in November where they hope to win back at least one chamber of Congress.
“The White House looks increasingly like a criminal enterprise with the convictions today of President Trump’s former campaign manager and personal lawyer,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement.
If Trump knew about the payments and that they were illegal, he could be charged with violating election law for accepting illegal payments and not disclosing them, said Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with Common Cause.
Current Justice Department guidelines state that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and that any wrongdoing should be referred to Congress for impeachment proceedings. Those guidelines aren’t binding.
After first denying knowledge of the payment, Trump admitted in May to reimbursing Cohen for a US$130,000 payment made on the eve of the election to Daniels, the porn actress, although he denied the transaction had anything to do with the campaign or involved campaign funds.
Trump was also heard on a 2016 recording made by Cohen that appears to show Trump was informed of the payments.
At nearly the same time in a Virginia courtroom, Manafort was found guilty on five counts of tax fraud, one count of failing to file a financial document with the government, and two counts of bank fraud. The jury couldn’t reach a decision on the other 10 counts. He was accused of lying to tax authorities about his income and offshore tax accounts, failing to file reports about those accounts, and defrauding banks to get loans.
The case was the first brought by Mueller to go to trial and gives weight to his investigation. Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, has charged 32 people and secured five guilty pleas.
“It’s a witch hunt and it’s a disgrace,” Trump said Tuesday of the Manafort verdict. “This has nothing what they started out looking for – Russians involved in our campaign, there were none.” Trump declined to answer questions on Cohen.
Cohen, for his part, once said he would “take a bullet for Trump,” but his tone shifted as his legal expenses mounted following the FBI raid. He began to tell associates he felt abandoned by Trump and that he would put his family first.
Giuliani has sought to discredit Cohen since news reports that he was considering cooperating with prosecutors, calling him a liar and a scoundrel.