Terrible day for Trump as Manafort is convicted, and Cohen points a finger in his guilty plea
Washington — Donald Trump suffered through perhaps the worst day of his presidency on Tuesday, as his personal lawyer 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.
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.
These developments offer 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.
"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 said.
A president who won election in part by labelling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, a criminal — 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.
Mueller’s probe of whether the Trump campaign was involved in Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections continues. But Mueller handed off the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in New York, which means his guilty plea intensifies a second — and entirely separate — investigation that could threaten the president.
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 was not related to Trump. "There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen," he said. "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 did not name Trump in court, referring instead to a "candidate" who directed him to make the illegal payments.
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, was more direct, saying later on Tuesday that 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".
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 $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Cohen admitted to making an illegal contribution of $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.
A number of Republicans also said the developments marked a significant turning point for Trump.
‘A criminal president’
"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."
Aboard Air Force One, Trump watched Fox News coverage of the Manafort verdict and Cohen’s plea, two people familiar with the matter said. One said Trump asked aides how the news was playing.
They described the president as sombre but calm and said he said nothing critical about Cohen or Manafort. One aide said Trump is battle-tested at this point and knows how to deal with extreme stress.
He was travelling with congressman Alex Mooney and senator Shelley Moore Capito, both of West Virginia, and senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. They distracted him with conversation about legislative issues and other topics, the people said.
Some of his aides and allies were worried about the consequences of the day’s events. Two of them expressed concern for the country. Two others said it is now likelier that Democrats will win the House of Representatives in November.
"Today clarifies that November is a referendum on impeachment — an up-or-down vote," Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said. "Every Trump supporter needs to get with the programme."
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 are not binding.
Today clarifies that November is a referendum on impeachment — an up-or-down vote. — Steve Bannon
After first denying knowledge of the payment, Trump admitted in May to reimbursing Cohen for a $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 could not 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 on 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.