WASHINGTON — Within the span of just a few minutes on Tuesday afternoon, two of the president’s men sitting in federal courts hundreds of miles apart became convicted felons.
It was a watershed moment in the presidency of Donald Trump. For the first time in the Trump-Russia investigation, a Trump associate was found guilty of a crime that directly implicates the president. And Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort were brought down not by evidence of Russian collusion, but by a series of tax, banking and campaign finance violations.
Proving that the president knowingly conspired with Russians to hack the Democrats’ servers, steal damaging information and leak it at politically opportune times was always going to be a challenge for special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
But the search for that evidence has brought to light an equally damaging revelation: Trump and his team were accustomed to breaking the law to get what they wanted. The effort to win the presidential election was no different. And just because Manafort and Cohen went down on white-collar crime charges doesn’t mean that Trump is safe — or that Mueller’s investigation won’t eventually lead back to Russia.
How The Russia Probe Exposed Corruption
“It’s hubris that oftentimes gets people,” Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor, said of white-collar criminals.
Mueller’s strategy of focusing on Cohen and Manafort’s white-collar crimes is perfectly reasonable, even in a probe directed at Russian interference in the 2016 election. “It’s not unusual for prosecutors to use charges — Al Capone is the primary example — to bring down a criminal conspiracy in any way they can,” Waxman pointed out.
“Criminals can get away in the white-collar world with wrongdoing as long as they don’t get too greedy,” he added.
Manafort and Cohen probably could have continued committing financial crimes and making lots of money for the rest of their working lives if only Trump hadn’t won the election and become ensnared in a special counsel investigation. All three men had engaged in legally dubious business practices for decades without attracting too much scrutiny from federal investigators. It was only after their wrongdoing bled into the realm of hacking and espionage that there was the political will to hold them accountable.
As a result of Mueller’s digging into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Manafort was found guilty on Tuesday of eight tax and bank fraud charges. And Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of financial crimes, including paying off two women to keep silent about affairs they claim to have had with Trump ahead of the election.
What This Means For Trump
The fall of Manafort and Cohen does not bode well for Trump. Scoring eight guilty convictions against Manafort is a significant credibility boost for Mueller’s team, which has been accused by Trump and his allies of conducting a “witch hunt” against the president. Manafort now appears to be weighing whether he should try to cooperate with Mueller’s team or hold out for a pardon from Trump — a move that might just be too corrupt for even the president’s Republican supporters in Congress to support.
Constitutionally, a pardon could happen. The only problem, former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick said, is if Trump’s team expressly discussed with Manafort that the purpose of pardoning him was to block the Mueller investigation.
Cohen’s guilty plea effectively makes Trump an unindicted co-conspirator. Current Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president cannot be indicted — but building a legitimate criminal case against Trump would make it harder for Republicans to stand united in opposition to impeaching the president.
When President Richard Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator by a grand jury, he opted to resign instead of face impeachment proceedings. Trump seems unlikely to step down, however. Any further efforts on his part to block the investigation into his campaign would put the Justice Department in uncharted territory.
Cohen, who famously bragged that he would take a bullet for his longtime boss, now appears willing to bring Trump down in an effort to minimize his own prison time.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Cohen’s personal lawyer Lanny Davis tweeted on Tuesday.
Cohen would be a prosecutor’s “dream cooperator: one who had special insider access to the leader of a powerful, closed, corrupt organization,” former prosecutors Mimi Rocah and Elie Honig wrote last month. “We used to prosecute mafia cases. We both know that in the mob — and perhaps in this White House — the right cooperator can bring down the entire hierarchy.”
“[Trump]’s almost sounding like a crime figure. He’s criticizing Cohen for pleading guilty and identifying others who were involved in the crime, and he’s praising Manafort for essentially hanging tough and not talking,” Sandick said. “This kind of talk is damaging.”