WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump is facing one of the most perilous moments of his presidency after two former members of his inner circle were labeled guilty of criminal charges Tuesday, with questions mounting about his legal exposure and political future.
Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of financial crimes at nearly the same moment that former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of felonies — including campaign finance violations that he said he carried out in coordination with Trump.
Cohen’s plea is the first time a Trump associate has been found guilty of a crime directly related to the 2016 election.
“It’s a big day, it’s a bad day,” said John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, on the implications of Cohen’s plea on Trump and his presidency. “I think we’ve established today that we have a criminal president, and that is historic.”
A president who won the election in part by labeling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, a criminal — complete with chants of “lock her up!” at campaign rallies — has now seen three close associates brought down by federal prosecutors, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
With two men who played prominent roles in the U.S. president’s campaign convicted on multiple charges, the investigations circled ever closer to Trump. But for all that, Trump spent more than an hour at a rally in South Carolina on Tuesday night painting a rosy view of his accomplishments in office and underscoring that Manafort’s crimes had occurred before he became involved with the Trump campaign.
Manafort was convicted in Virginia on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey, who was formerly in charge of the investigation.
Cohen pleaded guilty in New York, 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. In addition to a $130,000 payment to Daniels, he admitted to making an illegal contribution of $150,000, the amount former playmate Karen McDougal received from the National Enquirer’s publisher for her story about an alleged affair — a story never published by the Enquirer, which supported Trump’s campaign.
The Cohen case places Trump in the most jeopardy because the longtime personal fixer said Trump was personally involved in a scheme to pay off women who accused the future president of sexual misconduct.
Cohen didn’t name Trump in court, referring instead to a “candidate” who directed him to make the illegal payments.
His attorney, Lanny Davis, was more direct, saying in a statement later Tuesday that Cohen “stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.”
Up to now, Trump has shown an uncanny ability to shake off a relentless stream of accusations and statements that provoked outrage. But former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said: “It’s going to be hard for the president to try to discredit all this. It’s circling him.”
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.
In a separate courtroom Tuesday, the prosecution and defense agreed to postpone Flynn’s sentencing after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian official — a sign his cooperation is still needed in the Mueller probe.
The explosive legal developments come as the White House is refocusing around November’s midterm elections and as Trump allies like Steve Bannon seek to frame the elections as a referendum on the potential impeachment of the president — a scenario that they argue would ultimately be more a matter of politics than law.
Bannon argued Tuesday that Cohen’s plea “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 at the rally in Charleston, South Carolina, warning the crowd: “You aren’t just voting for a candidate. You’re voting for which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate.” Republicans currently have a 23-seat majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives and 51 of the 100 Senate seats.
Some analysts said Trump might be able to turn the setbacks to his advantage by reinforcing core supporters’ views that he is under siege. Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said: “In midterm elections, the president’s party tends to be less interested and less motivated to vote. But one thing that will motivate people to get out and vote is if they believe the party is being attacked unfairly.”
Republicans offered little indication that the party planned to treat Cohen’s revelations any different than the numerous other controversies that have dogged Trump during his 17 months in office. On Tuesday, most GOP lawmakers simply said nothing about Cohen’s guilty plea.
By now, the political calculus for Republicans is clear. Lawmakers see little incentive to distance themselves from Trump when even his most egregious statements do little to shake his support from Republican voters. At this point, the only GOP officials who have consistently spoken out against the president are those who aren’t running for re-election, such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Democrats believe they can motivate independent voters and moderate Republicans this fall by casting GOP officials as willing enablers of the president. Party operatives quickly made clear Tuesday that they plan to pummel Republican candidates who stay silent on the mounting legal questions swirling around the president.
Trump confidants reasserted late Tuesday that it is the White House’s position that a sitting 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 confirmed that.
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.
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.
“We’ve dubbed him Michael ‘the Rat’ Cohen,” said one source close to the president, who asked not to be identified.
Those in Trump’s orbit have steadily ratcheted up attacks on Cohen, suggesting he was lying about Trump’s business dealings. When Cohen’s team produced a recording he 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.
As he watched the courtroom proceedings, he told confidants that he feared his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., could at some point be the one on trial, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
“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.