The latest bombshell from Trump World is that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer prior to the 2016 presidential election, has pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges and is headed to jail.
Cohen is not a target of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, whose mandate is to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The guilty plea, rather, involves tax and bank fraud charges, along with the notorious hush-money payments Cohen made in the waning days of the 2016 election to two women Trump had affairs with.
The tax and bank-fraud charges have nothing to do with Trump. Cohen has his own business interests, including stakes in taxi medallions and real estate, and five of the guilty pleas involve tax evasion. A sixth involves fraudulent information supplied to a bank as part of a loan application.
But two other pleas relate directly to Trump. Cohen engineered the now-notorious hush-money payments of $130,000 to porn star Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels) and $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. While Cohen’s pleas in each instance were technically different, both involve violations of campaign-finance laws, a felony. The maximum for a contribution to a federal campaign in 2016 was $2,700. In his plea, Cohen acknowledges that the money covering the payouts were campaign contributions, and because they were far above the maximum, they were illegal.
Worse for Trump, Cohen told the judge in the case that he acted “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” who is obviously Trump. So President Trump is now directly implicated in a felony.
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Trump’s likely reaction to this is predictable: He’ll probably paint campaign-finance violations as trivial, technical oversights. Everybody does it, he might even say. Trump may also argue that just because Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations doesn’t mean a jury would have found them to be a crime. Nor is it clear any prosecutor would try to go after the president personally for a campaign-finance violation.
There’s another tantalizing question about Cohen: How much does he know about the inner workings of the Trump Organization, Trump’s licensing and real-estate development firm? The answer: Probably a lot. Cohen, though a lawyer, didn’t serve as general counsel for the Trump Organization. Instead, he was a globetrotting dealmaker who handled the gritty details of financing arrangements with a cast of shady characters, including New York mafia figures, Middle East money launderers, dirty politicians in Indonesia and, perhaps most notably, flush Russians friendly with the country’s dictator, Vladimir Putin.
The evidence that Trump himself “colluded” with Russian interests during the 2016 presidential campaign remains thin, as Trump insists. But that could be a red herring. If Trump the developer received sweetheart financing deals from Russian lenders connected with Putin—at a time when most commercial banks refused to lend him money—that alone could be evidence that Trump as president is now somehow beholden to Russian interests. And Cohen may know more about that than any of the other witnesses Mueller or other prosecutors have been able to turn.
Cohen, reportedly, is not cooperating with prosecutors by dishing damaging information on Trump in exchange for a lighter sentence. He supposedly agreed to a plea deal because it will allow his family to hold onto assets Cohen might have been forced to forfeit if he lost a trial. Still, prosecutors have raided Cohen’s offices and residences, collecting evidence that could hurt Trump, whether Cohen cooperates or not.
The Cohen plea, remarkably, comes on the same day a jury found Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, guilty of eight criminal charges including tax evasion and bank fraud. Trump isn’t directly implicated in the Manafort verdict, but his protective shield is clearly warping, making it increasingly likely that Trump’s business secrets will spill into the open. That could include new details on Trump’s income and tax payments, for a man now publicly linked with criminal activity more closely than he has ever been.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman