Unknown perils hang over Trump
Washington – The Russia probe. His former lawyer’s records — and memory. Two women with lawsuits. A third with tapes.
President Donald Trump is facing real political threats following one electrifying hour Tuesday that brought a plea deal by his onetime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, and the conviction of Paul Manafort, former chairman of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Much of the potential hazard comes from digging by special counsel Robert Mueller, New York prosecutors and lawyers for the women suing him. Other threats come from Cohen, who implicated the president in campaign finance crimes and made clear he’s happy to keep talking.
Trump has called the developments part of a “witch hunt” and “fake news.”
Hovering over everything are the November midterm elections, when Americans will deliver another kind of verdict on Republican control of the presidency and Congress.
What’s known: The president who demands loyalty from his allies can’t depend on them for it. What’s not: from whom, and where in the Trumpian landscape, another bolt might strike.
Here’s a look at the threats facing the president, his family and the Republicans defending their congressional majorities:
The legal system dumped two political hazards this week on Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty and said he and Trump arranged payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep them silent about their alleged affairs with him. And Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman during a key stretch of the 2016 race, was convicted by a jury of eight counts of bank and tax fraud.
The combination set up a world of uncertainty for everyone allied with the president.
The special counsel is still investigating Russia’s attempts to sway voters in the 2016 election. The probe includes the hacking of Democrats’ emails, whether the Trump campaign may have cooperated with Russia and if the president obstructed justice. Key to Mueller’s investigation is a 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in New York between Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and people with ties to Russia. Trump calls the probe a “witch hunt” and has not said whether he will sit for an interview with Mueller.
A final report from Mueller could go to Congress — a move that would become more significant if Democrats win control in this year’s elections.
Through his lawyer, Lanny Davis, Cohen has made clear he’s happy to keep talking — to Mueller and even to Congress, should lawmakers call him to testify. Already, the Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said they’ve “recently re-engaged” with Cohen on the Trump Tower meeting.
Cohen, 51, once said he’d take a bullet for Trump. On Tuesday he pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including tax evasion. He could get about four to five years in prison at sentencing Dec. 12. Cohen initially denied making the payments to McDougal and Daniels ahead of the 2016 elections to buy their silence about their alleged 2006 affairs with Trump. But in his plea deal, Cohen explicitly says he did so at Trump’s direction with the intention of influencing the 2016 election. The payments could be regarded as an illegal campaign expenditure.
“There’s going to be a little pushback in terms of Mr. Cohen’s credibility,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “I don’t think the full story’s been written yet.”
His criminal convictions do not intersect with the Trump campaign or White House, but they almost certainly mean years of prison time for him. He faces a trial later this year in Washington on federal charges of conspiracy and witness tampering. The verdicts Tuesday raised immediate questions of whether the president would seek to pardon Manafort. The president has not revealed his thinking but spoke sympathetically throughout the trial, and on Wednesday he called Manafort “brave” while accusing Cohen of making up “stories in order to get a ‘deal’ ” from prosecutors.
Also Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys for former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn agreed to postpone his sentencing after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian official. It was a sign that Flynn’s cooperation was still needed — and possible — in the Mueller probe. Trump fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian officials; Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
A grand jury is hearing testimony about Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime on-again-off-again adviser, in the investigation into Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Stone is believed to be the Trump-connected person Russian military intelligence officers contacted in August 2016 with an offer of campaign help. The contact was revealed in an indictment last month against 12 Russians, accusing them of releasing thousands of private communications in a sweeping Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
Stone, through his attorney, has acknowledged having a “24-word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0” – the online persona used by Russian hackers.
Daniels and McDougal
The two women who say they were Trump’s onetime paramours are suing to invalidate agreements designed to silence them. Testimony or discovery could yield more information on how Trump operates.
Trump’s onetime protege and presidential adviser has a stash of video, emails, text messages and documentation supporting claims in her tell-all book about her time in the Trump White House. Manigault Newman has made clear she intends to continue releasing the pieces of evidence if Trump continues to attack her credibility. He’s called her “that dog.” She’s dribbled out audio and video recordings.
Not helping Trump’s “drain the swamp” claim, or the GOP’s defense of the House: The indictments on corruption charges of the first two House Republicans to endorse Trump in the Republican presidential primaries. On Tuesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California was indicted on charges that include spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. Rep. Chris Collins of New York was indicted earlier this month on insider trading charges. Both have proclaimed their innocence.