You can say this for President Trump: When the raids on his attorney Michael Cohen’s house, hotel and office occurred, he knew it was trouble, as his slew of tweets at the time showed. About four months after Cohen saw FBI agents cart out boxes of documents, he surrendered to the FBI and entered a plea deal in federal court to a total of eight counts, five for tax evasion, one for a false statement to a bank and two related to campaign-finance charges. Most important, the plea states that Cohen, in committing the campaign-finance violations, acted at the behest of the “candidate.” There is only one candidate. The president of the United States has now been implicated in commission of federal crime(s) by his longtime lawyer. Take that in. The details of those crimes and Cohen’s obligations, if any, to cooperate will unfold.
Trump was right to be panicked back in April, and since then we’ve all learned of more damaging facts that Cohen may substantiate. Cohen is at the intersection of at least three possibly disastrous legal stories.
First, Cohen was involved in the payment of hush money to silence multiple women with whom Trump allegedly had extra-marital affairs. The political fallout will depend on how many women and the circumstances of those payments. The criminal liability here concerns violation of campaign-finance rules as part of a deliberate attempt to conceal large amounts of money from voters. Blaming Cohen exclusively will be hard for Trump to pull off, given the tape we already have heard. If there is other evidence documenting Trump’s involvement, his legal problem worsens.
Second, Cohen has been Trump’s “fixer” and dealmaker for years. He was at the center of the failed Trump Tower project in Russia and likely would have been privy to other Russia-related transactions, if any, over years. Trump has insisted the special counsel not go into his personal finances. The chances that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team are doing just that and will continue digging with Cohen as a guide has gone up dramatically.
Third, Cohen may have plenty of other information relating to Trump campaign contacts with Russia and to Trump’s own efforts to conceal them and disable the investigation. Goodness knows what recordings, documents and firsthand recollections he may have. What, for example, does he know about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016? What, if anything, does he know about contacts that members of the Trump team had with Russia during the campaign and/or the transition? Given that the White House counsel Donald McGahn, who is not Trump’s personal lawyer, has spent 30 hours or more with the special counsel, it is not as if Cohen would be the only witness to possible impropriety. Cohen and McGahn may bolster one another’s accounts.
Cohen matters because he may have critical information relating to all three of these evolving stories. Moreover, he cannot be written off as someone peripherally related to Trump. He cannot be written off as a coffee boy or as someone who went in and out of Trump’s orbit in a matter of weeks. In short, Cohen’s plea is a crushing blow because he is the first cooperating witness that could implicate Trump directly in all three matters — the women and campaign money, Trump’s business dealings, and the Trump campaign’s Russia connections.
Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe tells me, “Whether or not called an unindicted co-conspirator, that’s what the sitting president IS as of close of business today, Aug. 21, 2018, a day that will live in legal infamy.” He explains, “That’s the import of two of Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas on charges of making knowingly illegal campaign contributions at Trump’s behest in the form of hush money to keep his sex scandals quiet as the election date approached.” He adds that with the conviction of Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, on eight counts, “the only possible conclusion is that this criminal administration is coming unglued.”
Buckle up. Trump now goes from the frying pan into the fire.