This post has been updated.
Tuesday brought the news we all suspected would come sooner or later: President Trump’s former personal attorney/fixer Michael Cohen reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in New York.
But the specifics of the deal are important — and they’re decidedly very bad for Trump.
Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts that include bank and tax fraud and, importantly, a campaign finance violation. The charges stem from payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump and were paid shortly before the 2016 election. That means, for the first time, a Trump aide has been found guilty of an offense directly related to the campaign.
Even worse for Trump, it’s an offense in which he was at least tangentially involved and to which he has increasingly been tied (in contradiction to his early denials). That places Trump much closer to actual wrongdoing than at any previous point in the Russia probe and related investigations.
“That’s potentially very bad news for Trump, because if he knew about the payments in advance or even agreed to them later, he’s looking at liability as a conspirator for what is now a proven crime,” said former Justice Department aide Harry Litman.
Cohen’s deal does not include an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors, as we might have expected. But in making the plea, he has apparently implicated Trump in violation. Cohen told prosecutors that he made the payments in “coordination” with and at the “direction” of an unnamed “candidate,” which it seems obvious was Trump.
That means there could be plenty more to play out, and this could get hairy for the president.
“I do think a plea to paying the women moves the overall case forward in the sense that if campaign money was used to make the payments, anyone involved in that [including, in theory, then-candidate Trump] is guilty of a campaign fraud,” former federal prosecutor Patrick J. Cotter said. “Thus, more potential witnesses and targets will result from Cohen’s plea.”
Other members of Trump’s team — Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos — have pleaded to making false statements in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was just found guilty on eight counts in the first of two trials involving offenses related to his private consulting business that predated the 2016 campaign. None of their actions during the campaign have been exonerated — and prosecutors often keep details of such investigations under wraps for as long as possible — but it remained true, before Tuesday afternoon, that neither special counsel Robert S. Mueller III nor anybody else had issued a criminal indictment or obtained a guilty plea involving a Trump aide and the 2016 campaign.
The question about whether Cohen would cooperate with prosecutors was the big one here, but it seems almost moot now. He has already provided key evidence publicly, and now he has rather clearly suggested, via his plea, that Trump was involved. Cohen has also previewed a willingness to cooperate, even publicly revealing a tape of a conversation he had with Trump about buying the rights to the story of one of Trump’s accusers, McDougal.
We have crossed a new threshold in this whole matter.