All of Washington is wondering what comes next, following the bombshell guilty plea Tuesday by President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to charges of violating federal campaign finance laws in an effort to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen entered his plea in U.S. District Court in New York City. He stated that candidate Trump directed him to coordinate payments to two women during the 2016 presidential race to keep them from publicizing claims that they had affairs with Trump, because the candidate feared the allegations by the women would harm his election chances.
“I participated in this conduct … for the principal purpose of influencing the election,” Cohen said in his guilty plea.
President Trump has repeatedly denied he had affairs with the women – the porn star known as Stormy Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford) and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Daniels received a payment of $130,000 from Cohen. McDougal received a payment of $150,000 from American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, for the rights to her story. However, the magazine never published her story. The chairman of American Media is David Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump.
In addition to pleading guilty to causing an illegal corporate campaign contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution, Cohen pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to a bank and five counts of tax evasion.
The Cohen pleas on the campaign finance law violations mean two things.
First, it is unlikely Cohen has any information to offer Special Counsel Robert Mueller about allegations that Trump or his presidential campaign colluded with Russia to help Trump defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the presidential race two years ago. If Cohen did have such information, his guilty plea on the campaign finance violations and other charges would likely have been delayed.
And second, Cohen’s claim that he engaged in shady dealings by doing Trump’s bidding in coordinating the payments to the two women will figure in Mueller’s eventual report to Congress on the Russia investigation. The Mueller report is likely to be seized upon by Trump opponents as grist for their drive to impeach the president if Democrats win a majority of U.S. House seats in the November midterm election.
There is very little chance that President Trump will face charges over the payments that Cohen admitted to coordinating.
In a similar case, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina – the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president – was indicted by the Justice Department over payments some of his supporters made to his mistress when Edwards ran for president in 2008. Edwards was prosecuted on six counts. He was acquitted on one and the jury couldn’t decide on the other five.
It was generally conceded at the time that the prosecution of Edwards was a fiasco, because prosecutors found it impossible to prove that the purpose of the Edwards payments was political, rather than simply an effort to keep his terminally ill wife from learning that he had an extramarital affair and fathered a child with his mistress.
As Bob Bauer, who served as White House counsel for President Barack Obama, has observed: “Only a motivation materially if not wholly shaped by political objectives would implicate federal campaign finance law in a situation like this.”
So while it’s unlikely that President Trump will face legal charges for his alleged role in the Cohen payments, that doesn’t mean there will not be future damage to the president, who is no ordinary client.
Bauer said that the Cohen case is “about the most powerful man in the country – who prosecutors have observed displaying contempt for legal considerations and constraints, and consistently lying about his actions.”
Mueller and his prosecutors are intent on showing that President Trump committed obstruction of justice early in his administration to avoid scrutiny of aspects of his 2016 campaign. The need to avoid such a minefield is one reason that Trump lawyers don’t want to subject the president to an interview with the Mueller team.
Mueller will likely find it very difficult to make an obstruction case against the president, but that won’t deter him them from filing a report to the Justice Department on his investigation that will inevitably leak. Even if that report doesn’t lead to impeachment of the president, you can bet it will be seized upon by the president’s enemies in the run-up to any Trump re-election campaign.
So the ultimate outcome of the Mueller probe may be a classic Pyrrhic victory for Trump – a victory that comes at a very steep cost. There will be little if any evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin actors. But the further reputational damage the Mueller report will leave may hurt the president with some of his soft supporters and motivate his opponents to attack him with greater ferocity.
Donald Trump’s policies are fueling a growing economy and many of his policies cheer conservatives. But a Mueller report accusing Trump of wrongdoing would, even if biased, no doubt call into question the president’s judgment.
Trump, after all, made the decision to make Paul Manafort – a sleazy lobbyist convicted Tuesday of tax evasion and bank fraud – chairman of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign. Trump also hired Omarosa Manigault Newman, an outrageous version of a cartoon villain, for his White House staff. How did that work out?
And now, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been revealed as a sleaze whose clumsy deceptions leave even New York shyster lawyers shaking their heads.
I believe Donald Trump will survive the Mueller probe, which will have its own ethical problems regarding bias and prosecutorial abuse to answer for. But the picture it is likely to paint of our president will ask his supporters to do a lot of heavy lifting when they come to his defense.