Ironically, the first guilty plea to touch President Donald Trump came Tuesday not from independent counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts — but from regular prosecutors in the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Prosecutors obtained a guilty plea in a deal with Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen (shown above right), on eight felony counts — including two related to campaign finance law.
Cohen pleaded guilty to facilitating two payments to keep women quiet about alleged affairs with Trump.
Cohen claimed in court that he did so with the “coordination and the direction of a candidate for federal office,” an apparent reference to Trump.
Cohen’s plea took place at almost the same time that a federal jury in Virginia found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort (above left) guilty on eight criminal counts related to financial and tax fraud. The jury was deadlocked on 10 other counts, and the judge declared a mistrial on them.
Manafort was charged by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to investigate allegations that Trump aides colluded with Russian interests during the 2016 presidential campaign.
None of the Manafort counts, however, were linked to the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president’s lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, downplayed the Cohen plea, saying “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami told reporters outside the courthouse in Manhattan that Cohen admitted to two separate illegal payments. One involved an arrangement by the parent company of the National Enquirer to buy the story of former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal as a means of burying it.
The other was a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her from speaking publicly about her alleged affair. Daniels was represented by Manhattan lawyer Michael Avenatti, who has ridden the publicity attending her case to a mention as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.
Khuzami said Cohen worked to “silence two women who had information he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 campaign and to the candidate and the campaign.”
Cohen then submitted “sham” invoices for reimbursement that indicated he was paid for legal services in 2017, Khuzami said. “He provided no legal services for the year 2017, and it was simply a means to obtain reimbursement for the unlawful campaign contribution.”
Khuzami did not mention the president and did not take questions from reporters. But he said the campaign finance violations and charges for tax and bank fraud “reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time.”
He suggested Cohen’s conduct was even more egregious because of his status as a lawyer. “Mr. Cohen disregarded that training, disregarded that tradition and decided that he was above the law. And for that, he is going to pay a very, very serious price,” he said.
Democrats wasted no time tying Cohen to Trump. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the House of Representatives should hold immediate hearings on the matter, an apparent reference to Democrats’ launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Blitzer asked Castro if Trump had committed a crime. “It certainly seems that way based on what Michael Cohen has said,” he said.
Brad Smith, a former member of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), said he was reluctant to comment on Cohen’s plea because he does not know the details. But he told LifeZette that he continues to hold to his view that it is a stretch to call the payments related to McDougal and Daniels campaign expenses.
“I don’t think it fits the definition of campaign finance expenses,” he said.
Smith said the campaign finance laws are designed to regulate expenses that must be paid for and reported by political campaigns. That excludes personal expenses, he said. He added that the laws are just as important in guarding against misuse of campaign money.
“We don’t want candidates paying for personal things with their campaign funds,” he said.
Smith said that to make a case against a candidate, prosecutors would have to show that he made an expenditure solely for a campaign purpose. He said the FEC explicitly has rejected “mixed-use sorts of things” that might have dual purposes. For example, he said, a candidate does not have to report the purchase of a car with his personal funds even if he uses it to drive to campaign events.
“The flip side of calling it a campaign expense is to say that it has to be paid with campaign funds,” he said.
Manafort verdict. Trump, upon landing in West Virginia on Tuesday for a campaign rally, ignored reporters’ questions about Cohen. But he expressed sympathy for Manafort and repeated his contention that Mueller’s probe is a “witch hunt” that has nothing to do with Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
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“Paul Manafort’s a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan,” Trump said. “He was with a lot of different people over the years … It doesn’t involve me, but I still feel — you know, it’s a very sad thing that happened. It has nothing to do with Russian collusion.”
Manafort sat impassively as the verdicts were delivered. He has been held in a federal prison in Virginia for several months, much of it in solitary confinement. His sentencing will come August 29. His attorneys have not said whether he will appeal, and prosecutors did not say if they will seek a second trial on the 10 counts on which the jury deadlocked.
Manafort’s conviction represents the biggest catch thus far in Mueller’s investigation of the Russia collusion allegations. None of the charges brought against Manafort by Mueller involved the Trump campaign.
But Mueller brought the large number of charges against Manafort in an effort to pressure the former Trump campaign manager to turn state’s evidence against the president.
If convicted of all counts, he theoretically would have been subject to a maximum of more than 300 years in prison, although under sentencing guidelines, the actual prison term would be far less.
Trump has the authority as president to either commute any sentence imposed on Manafort or to pardon him outright. If Trump were to do so, he would be following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton, who issued more than 100 pardons just before leaving office. Among those Clinton pardoned were a former business partner, a former member of his presidential Cabinet, and his brother, Roger.
While Manafort has been the most prominent former Trump campaign aide to be ensnared in the Russia collusion scandal, he was the president’s campaign manager for only a few months prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Manafort has been a prominent Washington political operator since the Reagan era, having formed with partner Charles Black and Roger Stone one of the premier campaign and lobbying consulting firms of the day.
He went on from there to represent multiple foreign interests including pro-Russian actors in Ukrainian government and politics. He also was involved in former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.