In the span of an hour Tuesday, two people close to President Trump in the 2016 campaign who have been ensnared in legal troubles were found guilty in separate courts.
And with that, Trump’s already questionable attacks on the independent Russia investigation into election meddling took an even bigger credibility hit.
Let’s start with a direct challenge to Trump’s version of events during the campaign that Trump appears to have just lost.
Trump originally said he didn’t know about his longtime lawyer and fixer’s efforts to pay off women during the campaign who said they had affairs with the president. Later he said he wasn’t doing anything wrong. That lawyer, Michel Cohen, just pleaded guilty in New York court, saying that he not only paid off those women to help Trump win the election — a potential campaign finance violation — but that he did it “in coordination and at the direction of” Trump.
In other words, Trump maintains that he had nothing to do with anything unsavory or illegal; Cohen just pleaded guilty to doing those things because Trump told him to. Cohen has already released some tapes that appear to back up his version of events. Now he has testified that it happened.
And it’s infinitely harder for Trump to logically claim he’s the one telling the truth when the other person faces jail time for telling a court his version of events.
“This is a disaster for Trump,” said Cornell Law vice dean and legal analyst Jens David Ohlin. “The president is now smack in the middle of a campaign finance violation case. . . . Prosecutors not only have audio recordings of these conversations but will have Cohen’s testimony on top of that. Cohen can both authenticate the tapes and also explain what happened before and after the recordings.”
As The Fix’s Aaron Blake writes, this is the first time in the broader Russia investigation that one of Trump’s allies pleaded guilty to something specific to the 2016 campaign.
But just a half-step back from what went on during the 2016 campaign is more troubling legal news for Trump. On Tuesday, a federal jury in Virginia convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of eight counts of tax and bank fraud. Jurors were hung on 10 other counts. None of the 18 charges stemmed from activities that happened while Manafort was leading Trump’s campaign in summer 2016.
But at the very least, the Manafort verdict is a massive PR hit for Trump. The head of his campaign at a critical moment during the campaign is now a convicted bank and tax fraud felon. And those convictions resulted from the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team, whom Trump is desperately trying to disparage and discredit.
Trump has argued that, much like him, Manafort is being treated unfairly by investigators. The broader message is that Mueller’s investigation and related ones are politically motivated maneuvers to get him.
After Tuesday, to continue to argue that, he’ll have to try to discredit not only Mueller but a federal judge and 12 anonymous jurors who didn’t think the charges were unfair.
After Manafort’s conviction, Trump zeroed in on the fact that Manafort’s convictions didn’t involve his work with Trump or the allegations that the campaign colluded with Russia to win the election. “It doesn’t involve me. … It’s a very sad thing. … This has absolutely nothing to do” with Russian collusion, he told reporters.
But what Trump isn’t acknowledging is that, in many ways, this trial was all about Russian collusion.
Manafort’s brief tenure as the head of Trump’s campaign overlapped with concerns about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he’s got high-level connections to Russia in his own right, and he’s a key link to the president as one of the highest-ranking Trump campaign officials ensnared in the investigation.
The more legal pressure there is on Manafort, the more pressure he’ll face from Mueller to sign a plea deal. Any plea deal would probably offer Manafort a reduced jail sentence in exchange for sharing what he knows about Trump and Russia connections.
Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, has reached a similar plea deal to cooperate with Mueller. On Tuesday, so did Cohen. Manafort refused, and a jury just convicted him of eight serious charges that Mueller himself brought. None of this looks like a political witch hunt or hoax. It looks like key members of Trump’s inner circle in 2016 are in serious legal trouble, and Trump’s defenses around those people are crumbling.