The developments advanced a special counsel investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election and further exposed the president to legal jeopardy and impeachment by Congress.
The conviction of Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, on eight charges of bank and tax fraud clinched a critical victory for Robert Mueller III, the special counsel probing possible coordination between US persons and the Russian government to influence the election.
It was the Mueller team’s first successful conviction in a trial by jury. Mueller is keenly interested in Manafort’s deep ties to Russian oligarchs and any knowledge he might have of their coordination with the Trump campaign during the 2016 race.
While Manafort was convicted on Tuesday of hiding bank accounts and concealing tens of millions of dollars in taxable income earned from pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, Trump declared him a “good man” after the verdict was read, and praised him for withstanding pressure from the special counsel to flip.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
The president’s remark, repeated to reporters outside Air Force One, was widely interpreted in Washington as a signal to Manafort to keep quiet in exchange for a potential presidential pardon. The president has the power to pardon and commute the sentences of anyone charged or convicted of federal crimes.
But Cohen – who on Tuesday plead guilty to eight felony counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and election law violations – received no such praise from his former boss.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer,” Trump continued, “I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”
Indeed, Trump’s longtime fixer and consigliere may prove to be the president’s greatest liability. Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney for twelve years and a veteran of the Trump Organization, told the judge that he had paid hush money to Trump’s alleged mistresses in the late hours of the 2016 race “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
The plea effectively implicated Trump in a conspiracy to break election law, raising new legal and political challenges for the embattled president.
SOME DEMOCRATS cautiously raised the prospect of impeachment hearings, but wary of energizing Trump’s political base ahead of the November midterm elections, most liberal lawmakers said they would wait for a full report from the Mueller probe before rendering judgment. Republican congressional leaders – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan – remained quiet, requesting more information on the Southern District of New York investigation into campaign finance violations.
The US Justice Department maintains a policy that sitting presidents cannot be criminally indicted. But the constitutionality of that policy has not been ruled on by the Supreme Court; the Constitution clearly states that presidents can be indicted and sentenced after leaving office.
Cohen paid off at least two women, Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford, to quiet them on “alleged affairs” with Trump conducted over several years and during his marriage to his third wife, Melania Trump. Cohen will serve jail time for up to five years, to be determined at a December 12 sentencing hearing.
Mueller initially farmed out Cohen’s case to federal prosecutors in New York after coming across wrongdoing in his own investigation. The southern district spearheaded the case after federal law enforcement raided Cohen’s home and hotel room in April.
“He worked to pay money to silence two women who had information that he believed would be detrimental to the campaign,” Robert Khuzami, a deputy US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Tuesday.
But Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, told reporters that Cohen has valuable information to share with the special counsel, including insight into whether Trump knew privately ahead of time that Moscow would target the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton for cyberattack.
Cohen led Trump’s years-long effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow through 2016 and allegedly served as an intermediary to Felix Sater, a convicted mob associate with deep Russian ties, to negotiate an end to sanctions on Russia under the emerging Trump administration.