There are a zillion questions after two people close to President Trump during the 2016 campaign were convicted of or admitted to crimes within an hour of each other Tuesday: Why did Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen turn on the president so sharply? Will former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort face a retrial for the 10 of 18 charges he wasn’t convicted of? How will this news affect the midterm elections in November?
But Tuesday’s massive legal drama raises even bigger questions about the president’s potential legal jeopardy and the future of the independent investigation into Russian election interference. Like:
1. Did Trump commit a crime?
Standing in a courthouse in New York on Tuesday, Cohen said the magic words admitting to a crime: “I participated in this conduct . . . for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” That means he didn’t pay off two women alleging affairs with Trump out of the goodness of his heart and then not report it. He did it specifically to help Trump win the election, which is illegal.
Cohen didn’t just implicate himself. He said he made these payments at the direction of Trump, implicating Trump in his wrongdoing.
Trump has since acknowledged that he reimbursed Cohen for one of those women’s payments, and he’s on tape appearing to talk about the other. But he denies telling Cohen to do these things.
We may never know whether Trump committed a crime, because a decades-old Justice Department opinion says you can’t indict a sitting president. Prosecutors could try to challenge it, but The Post spoke with a number of legal experts who are doubtful they would, or that it would work.
2. How is Trump’s company implicated in all this?
It’s not just the president who got pulled into Cohen’s convictions. Legal filings from the case revealed that executives at Trump Organization approved $420,000 in reimbursements to Cohen to pay off these women, then tried to hide the true nature of those payments by describing them as legal fees and retainers. Prosecutors say Cohen even got a $60,000 bonus for his work trying to keep these women quiet during the election.
That could be legally problematic if a court viewed this as this yet another unreported in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign.
3. What else does Cohen know about Trump?
Cohen's plea deal didn't specifically say he'd help out with investigations into the president, but it's pretty clear he wants to.
Cohen’s attorney (yes, even lawyers have attorneys at this point) dangled this tantalizing nugget: Lanny Davis said Tuesday on MSNBC that Cohen has more information that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III might be interested in. Since Cohen’s case was handled by prosecutors in New York and not the special counsel, a likely translation is: Cohen knows Russia stuff.
Cohen has said that Trump knew about that 2016 Trump Tower meeting before it happened, the one that investigators think may have involved collusion with Russians. Davis said Cohen knows details of “the computer crime of hacking” and “whether Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.”
This might all be bluster. The Post reports that Mueller has determined that Cohen isn’t necessary to the special counsel’s work. Another possibility is that Cohen knows something that Mueller doesn’t know Cohen knows.
4. Will Manafort flip?
In exactly a week, Manafort will be back in court in Virginia to be sentenced. He could spend a decade or more in jail after being convicted on eight of 18 counts of bank and tax fraud. And that’s just the beginning of Manafort’s legal troubles.
We don’t know whether Mueller will try again to prosecute the other 10 charges the jury was hung up on. Plus, Manafort faces a separate trial on related charges in Washington later this month.
Legal experts think Mueller tried to throw the book at Manafort to get him to share what he knows. Now that Manafort faces serious jail time, will he?
5. Will Trump pardon Manafort?
Five Trump associates have now pleaded guilty or been charged with crimes in Russia-related or spinoff investigations. Manafort is the only one who didn’t take a plea deal, and a big unanswered question is: Why? Instead of trying to lessen his sentence to cooperate with Mueller on what he knows about the Trump campaign and Russia, Manafort went to trial and now could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Enter Trump. The president has publicly said a couple of times since Manafort’s conviction that Manafort is a good or brave man.
He praised that Manafort didn’t “break” like the others. Trump has been willing to wield his pardon power before for controversial figures. Even though it would probably be very hard politically to defend such an action, would Trump do it for Manafort? On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t rule out a pardon, only saying that she’s not aware of conversations about the notion.
6. Will Trump be impeached?
Congress is the other big player in all this because it can punish Trump when a court of law can’t. Watch for how Republicans react to Trump’s escalating political and legal problems. Will they stand by him? Will they pass a stalled bill to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump? What will they do if Trump tries to fire other top Justice Department officials to blunt the Mueller probe? If the party has a thorough plan for these scenarios, it isn’t sharing what it is.
It may not be on the Republicans' shoulders much longer. If Democrats take back control of the House in November’s midterm elections, their party will have to decide what to do with Trump. Specifically: Does it start impeachment proceedings?