President Donald Trump faced back-to-back legal blows on one of the worst days of his extraordinary presidency Tuesday as his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of bank and tax fraud, and his longtime lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws in paying off, on the direction of Trump, two women so they would keep quiet about alleged sexual encounters with the President.
“It may be that the Trump presidency will be divided into pre- and post-August 21, 2018 periods”, tweeted Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer with The New Yorker, and the author of a number of books on contemporary American law and courtroom battles. What are the key takeaways from the developments involving Cohen and Manafort, and their implications for Trump and his presidency?
The removal of Trump from office has long been discussed, and the developments of Tuesday can spark calls for impeachment hearings. But most analysts in the US were saying they will likely not impact the President legally as long as he is in office.
Cohen’s claims — that he paid Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 and adult film actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 “for the principal purpose of influencing the election”, “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” — implicate the President directly, and are more dangerous for him than Manafort’s conviction.
However, the United States Justice Department has long held that a President cannot be charged with a crime — its detailed legal analyses in 1973 and 2000 came to the conclusion that the American Constitution does not allow criminal indictment of the occupant of the White House.
The Justice Department’s line hasn’t yet been challenged in court, and a prosecutor can in theory go ahead, ignoring the Department’s position. American media reports, however, noted that Deputy US Attorney Robert Khuzami, who dealt with Cohen’s case, did not indicate that he now intended to act against the President.
Also, Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III, who is investigating interference by Russia in the presidential election of 2016, and the potential obstruction of justice, has been reported to have already reached the conclusion that the accusations of campaign finance violations through the payment of “hush money” were outside his mandate.
Indeed, Manafort was convicted on charges brought by Mueller. But his conviction on eight counts does not directly implicate the President, who has said the court’s verdict “has nothing to do with Russian collusion”, and Manafort’s crimes “doesn’t involve me”. American media has, in fact, analysed the possibility of Trump pardoning Manafort.
If legal proceedings and criminal prosecution are ruled out, that leaves impeachment as a possibility by which Trump may be held accountable for his alleged role in campaign finance violations. But it is unlikely Congress would go down that road as long as Republicans are in a majority. Things could potentially change if the Democratic party takes the House after midterm elections — but even the Democrats are not unanimous that impeachment would be politically beneficial.
So what is the upshot, then?
Cohen’s guilty plea could bring pressure on Democrats to commit to begin impeachment proceedings should they take the House later in the year. The political pressure on Trump will greatly increase after Tuesday’s courtroom developments — more so if Manafort attempts to strike a deal and cooperates with investigators.
“The combination of the Manafort conviction and the guilty plea by Michael Cohen creates a legal maelstrom for the President’s lawyers, who now have to do battle on two fronts, fending off unrelated charges that both involve individuals who were at one time close to the President,” The Washington Post quoted former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz as saying.