Trump suffers a double whammy in the courts
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US President Donald Trump encountered one of the most perilous moments of his presidency after two former members of his inner circle were labelled guilty of criminal charges as questions over his legal exposure and political future mounted.
Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of financial crimes at nearly the same moment Tuesday that Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of felonies, including campaign finance violations that the lawyer said he carried out in coordination with Trump.
With two men who played prominent roles on the president's campaign convicted of multiple criminal charges, the investigations circled ever closer to Trump.
“These are two back-to-back, separate cases,” explained FRANCE 24’s international news commentator Douglas Herbert. “One, involving [special counsel] Robert Mueller’s investigation and the former campaign manager for Trump and the other case by federal prosecutors in Manhattan involving Trump’s own fix-it man, his own personal lawyer for a decade, the man who was side-by-side with Donald Trump even before his presidency, always in the Trump organisation, always helping to pick up the pieces for Donald Trump, to clean up the mess so to speak.”
Manafort was convicted in Virginia on charges brought by Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential obstruction of justice. Cohen pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court, saying he and Trump had arranged the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a former Playboy model to influence the election.
Cohen case proves more problematic
It is the Cohen case that puts Trump in the most jeopardy, analysts say, as the president’s longtime personal "fixer" acknowledged his role in a scheme to pay off women who accused the Republican candidate of sexual misconduct.
While Cohen never named Trump in court on Tuesday, he testified working “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office". The former Trump lawyer also did not name the two women involved in the case.
“Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, testified in court that yes, at the behest of this candidate, he paid hush money to several women in order to buy their silence because if they were to speak about the affairs they said they’d had with Donald Trump, that would presumably affect his electoral fortunes. That comes under the category of campaign contributions -- that paying off these women was essentially a campaign contribution to Donald Trump to help get him elected,” said Herbert.
More than a year into his presidency, the wave of allegations against Trump, which have been robustly dismissed by the US president and his aides, have begun hitting closer home.
"It's going to be hard for the president to try to discredit all this. It's circling him," David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, told the Associated Press.
Trump ignores proceedings at campaign rally
Trump has shown an uncanny ability to shake off a relentless stream of accusations and jolting statements that provoked outrage. His loyal base of supporters has stayed with him despite his effort to blame "both sides" for the deadly violence between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, for one, and his refusal to side with the US intelligence services over Russia's Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, among other controversies.
Despite the double whammy against him, Trump largely ignored the court proceedings on Tuesday, as he campaigned in West Virginia.
The crowd at the West Virginia rally loudly chanted Trump's campaign staples "Drain the swamp!" and "Lock her up!" – referring to 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton -- despite the fresh corruption convictions and looming prison sentences for his former advisers.
Giuliani stands by Trump
Manafort's conviction served as a vindication of Mueller's work as investigators continue to probe potential misdeeds by the president and those in his orbit. Mueller's team also had referred evidence in the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in New York.
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to cast the blame solely on Cohen in a Tuesday statement, saying: "There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen."
Trump's legal team has also been engaged in extended negotiations with Mueller's team about a potential sit-down with the president, but has objected to the scope of the questions.
The afternoon of explosive legal developments comes as the White House is refocusing itself around the upcoming midterms and as Trump allies like Steve Bannon seek to frame the election as a referendum on the potential impeachment of the president. Trump confidants have long argued that the president's fate in such a scenario would ultimately be more a matter of politics than law.
Of Cohen's plea, Bannon argued Tuesday that it "takes away the argument from those who are telling the president it's not that bad if he loses the House. This now becomes more than ever a national election on the issue of impeachment."
The president seemed to convey the stakes in Charleston, warning the crowd that "You aren't just voting for a candidate. You're voting for which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate."
Presidential inner circle worried
Trump confidants reasserted late Tuesday that it is the White House position that a president cannot be indicted, referring to a 2000 opinion of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice and guidance to executive branch agencies. Trump's lawyers have said Mueller plans to adhere to that guidance, though Mueller's office has never independently confirmed that. There would presumably be no bar against charging a president after he or she departs the White House.
Michael Avenatti, a lawyer pressing a civil case against Trump for Daniels, who has said she had sex with the president, tweeted Tuesday that the resolution of the criminal case against Cohen "should also permit us to proceed with an expedited deposition of Trump under oath about what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it".
The Supreme Court in 1997, ruling in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, held that a sitting president could be made to answer questions as part of a lawsuit. That ruling did not directly address whether a president could be subpoenaed to testify in a criminal investigation.
Despite blustery public denials, the fate of Manafort and Cohen has worried the president's inner circle.
For many around Trump, Cohen has represented a greater threat than even the Russia investigation, drawing from his decade of working as the then-celebrity real estate developer's fixer. An FBI raid on Cohen's New York office and hotel room in April rattled the president, who has complained publicly about what he felt was government overreach while privately worrying about what material Cohen may have had after working for the Trump Organisation for a decade.
Those in Trump's orbit, including Giuliani, have steadily ratcheted up attacks on Cohen, suggesting he was untrustworthy and lying about what he knew about Trump's business dealings. When Cohen's team produced a recording that the former fixer had made of Trump discussing a payment to silence a woman about an alleged affair, Giuliani sought to impugn Cohen's credibility and question his loyalty.
Trump stewed for weeks over the media coverage of the Manafort trial. Though the proceedings were not connected to Russian election interference, Trump has seethed to confidants that he views the Manafort charges as "a warning shot" from Mueller.
"What matters is that a jury found that the facts presented to them by the special prosecutor warranted a conviction of someone who surrounds the president," Weinstein said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)