WASHINGTON — After 19 tumultuous months in office, President Donald Trump is being squeezed by legal assaults on two fronts, each of which could imperil his White House tenure.
How those cases intersect is at the heart of the high-stakes legal threat, and the answer may rely on one man — Michael Cohen, who was Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and confidante in New York.
A day after Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal charges and directly implicated Trump in campaign finance law violations, his lawyer raised the stakes Wednesday by hinting that Cohen will talk with prosecutors about Trump’s knowledge of Russian hacking of Democratic Party computers during the 2016 campaign.
Cohen “has knowledge… about the issue of whether Donald Trump ahead of time knew about the hacking of emails, which is a computer crime that was the subject of the indictment of the 12 Russians,” his lawyer, Lanny Davis, said on CNN. “And we’ll just have to see what Mr. Cohen is able to say from direct knowledge when and if he discusses this with the special counsel.”
Last month, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 12 officers in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, who are accused of orchestrating the theft and subsequent release of thousands of private emails from the Democratic National Committee and senior members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
It’s not clear how much Cohen can or will help Mueller’s investigation into the Kremlin-backed effort to interfere in the election and whether Trump or his aides conspired with the Russians.
But after a decade as Trump’s legal “fixer” in New York, tasked with silencing Trump’s critics, Cohen has deep knowledge of Trump’s finances, business deals and personal life, three spheres that have been strewn with controversy and allegations of wrongdoing for years.
Trump is “at his most vulnerable and tends to respond most volcanically about the period before his presidency,’’ said Harry Litman, a University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, San Diego law professor and former federal prosecutor.
It’s unlikely that the president can be charged with a crime under legal interpretations by the Justice Department. But members of Trump’s family could be indicted, and nothing bars prosecutors from going after a president after he leaves office.
After the Watergate scandal and almost certain impeachment forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign from office in 1974, President Gerald R. Ford granted him an unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president.
In his plea hearing Tuesday, Cohen admitted to arranging to pay off two women in 2016, so they’d stay silent about their alleged affairs with Trump during the campaign. He said he did so “in coordination with and at the direction of” the then-candidate.
“I participated in this conduct,” Cohen told the judge, “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Cohen faces four to five years in prison under his plea deal, and his statements in court make it clear he’s willing to target the president in hopes of reducing his sentence. He has signaled that he’s had a change of heart since last year, when he pledged to “take a bullet” for Trump.
“He has undergone a transformation, an evolution, whatever the word is, where he did a lot of things to defend Donald Trump that he now regrets,” Davis told NBC News’ Megyn Kelly. “He is a new person.”
Trump sought to distance himself from Cohen on Wednesday, albeit with sarcasm.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump tweeted.
He also compared Cohen unfavorably to Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, who was convicted Tuesday on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud after a trial in Alexandria, Va.
Manafort fought all the charges against him — he faces a second trial in Washington next month — instead of cutting a deal with prosecutors, as Cohen did in New York.
“Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ — make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’” Trump tweeted. “Such respect for a brave man!”
The New York and special counsel investigations are separate yet intertwined. Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to lead the probe of whether anyone from Trump’s campaign conspired with Russians to sway the election. He was also authorized to “prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,” and he’s been investigating whether the president obstructed justice after taking office.
Earlier this year, Mueller provided the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan with information that helped lay the groundwork for the criminal charges that Cohen pleaded guilty to on Tuesday.
During his hearing, Cohen said Trump directed the criminal scheme to which he was pleading guilty. Cohen said paid $280,000 in hush money to two women during the 2016 campaign “at the direction” of a candidate for federal office in an effort to influence the election. Davis later identified the candidate — identified as “Individual-1” in court papers — as Trump.
The payoffs went to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate, and Stormy Daniels, a porn star, who both said they had slept with Trump years ago. Cohen did not report the money as campaign donations, violating federal law because they functioned as political contributions.
Cohen “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. “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Now the trajectory could come full circle if Cohen has useful information for Mueller’s original investigation.
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