The president of the United States used a shady New York fixer to help on his most sensitive personal matters and hired a shady Washington fixer to briefly run his presidential campaign. What could go wrong? An awful lot, and on the same day.
Michael Cohen pled guilty Tuesday afternoon to a host of charges, including campaign-finance offenses that he said he committed at the direction of Donald Trump, at nearly the same time a jury in Northern Virginia found Paul Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax and bank fraud.
The Cohen campaign-finance violations involved the payments to a porn performer and a Playboy playmate that Trump allegedly had affairs with. Cohen’s statement in court was, on the one hand, not surprising since Trump’s prior denials that he knew about the payoffs were never credible, and on the other hand, shocking because it makes the president allegedly party to a crime, albeit an offense that is rarely prosecuted and is difficult to prosecute.
Hush payments themselves aren’t illegal. But Cohen pled guilty to exceeding campaign-finance limits, since the government considers the payments in the fall of 2016 to have been de facto campaign contributions, and to violating a ban on corporate contributions.
It’s not necessarily true, as Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis maintains, that if Cohen is guilty, Trump is guilty, too. It might be harder to establish that Trump meets the same stringent standard of criminal intent as his erstwhile lawyer, whose job it was to know the rules, and the president could argue that he wanted to avoid the personal embarrassment of his alleged affairs being revealed. Also, Trump was legally permitted to contribute as much as he liked to his own campaign and maintains he reimbursed the payments from personal funds.
Regardless, the issue for Trump now isn’t so much legal as political — Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can’t be indicted, meaning impeachment is the only immediate recourse for such misconduct. We don’t believe such an alleged campaign-finance violation — sleazy as it is — rises to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor, but Democrats will almost certainly disagree if they take the House.
The best defense for Trump is the one he’s least likely to make — being completely truthful about what happened, apologizing, and putting his trust in the capacity of the American public to forgive even more embarrassing lapses.
As for the Manafort case, even though the jury couldn’t decide on the other ten counts against him, Robert Mueller scored a victory. He wants to squeeze Manafort and now has him looking at a sentence of 80 years. That’s a lot of incentive to tell all he knows. (The president has reacted not just by commenting on an ongoing criminal proceeding, which is inappropriate enough, but by outrageously arguing that defendants should never decide to “flip” and aid prosecutors.)
Whether Manafort, whose crimes long predate his involvement with the Trump campaign, actually has any information implicating the president is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that Trump is paying the price for his poor judgment, in his associates and his underlying conduct.