Former Obama ethics chief Norm Eisen described the outcomes in a tweet as “the worst hour of Trump’s entire presidency — no, make that entire life.”
Jonathan Turley, an NBC legal analyst and law professor at George Washington University, told MSNBC on Wednesday that the news “couldn’t be worse” for the president.
And ousted Trump aide of the hour Omarosa Manigault Newman declared Cohen’s guilty plea “the beginning of the end” of Trump’s presidency.
But despite these ominous predictions — and the fact that Cohen implicated the president in a federal crime — many experts say it’s unlikely that Trump will face any legal consequences while he’s still in office.
Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and self-described “fixer,” pleaded guilty on Tuesday to eight criminal counts, including tax fraud, false statements to a bank, and campaign finance violations related to his work for Trump.
Cohen may have implicated Trump by stating that “a candidate for federal office” (which is universally understood to be Trump) directed payments prior to the 2016 presidential election to two women who claim to have had affairs with him, porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. (Trump has denied the affairs.) Cohen admitted to a federal judge that he made the payments “for the purpose of influencing the election.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that Trump “did nothing wrong” and there are “no charges against him.”
CNN reported that Trump is likely not in legal jeopardy, noting that special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has “apparently” told the president’s legal team that they will adhere to Justice Department regulations saying a sitting president can’t be indicted.
CNN argued that impeachment is a more likely threat to Trump.
Joshua Dressler, a law professor Ohio State University, agrees — but still believes that the president probably won’t be impeached.
Dressler tells Vox that Cohen’s admission that he made the payments ” ‘at the direction of a candidate for federal office,’ clearly implicates the president in those campaign violations.” But it may not matter.
“If he were not a sitting president this would constitute grounds for indictment on those charges,” Dressler said. “As a sitting president this constitutes, if Congress wishes to do so, impeachable offenses. But, as we know, impeachment is a political rather than a legal concept, and it would seem pretty clear that nothing will occur with the current Congress.”
Sol Wisenberg, who conducted grand jury questioning of former President Bill Clinton as deputy independent counsel during the Whitewater investigation, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Cohen’s plea deal leads Trump “closer to ultimate impeachment proceedings, particularly if the Democrats take back the House.”
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But most Democrats have been reluctant to call for Trump’s impeachment, especially those running in crucial midterm races, The Washington Post reports.
“I don’t want to see a two-year distraction,” said Susan Wild, a Democratic nominee favored to win a key Republican-held House seat in Pennsylvania tells the Post. “I think, honestly, impeachment proceedings would obviously derail getting other things done in Congress.”
The Post also reports that most Democrats have come to believe that “moral revulsion with political leaders is often only a deciding issue for voters who enjoy a level of economic security to look beyond their immediate needs” — a lesson they learned from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 tactics against Trump.
The question of what’s next for Trump also depends on what Cohen might tell special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s ties to Russia.
After Cohen’s guilty plea on Tuesday, his attorney, Lanny Davis, went on a media blitz in which he repeatedly suggested that Cohen has information that would be of interest to Mueller — specifically about the hacking of the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election, and about Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.’s mid-campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
On MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Davis said that Cohen had “knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.”
He elaborated to The Washington Post, “A conspiracy to commit a crime becomes a crime if there’s one overt act — meaning you do anything to implement the crime. If there is a conversation and a plan for there to be dirt on Hillary Clinton, and then someone knows the way you’re willing to get the dirt is a Russian agent called WikiLeaks . . . and then WikiLeaks hacks into an email account, which is a crime, then you have committed a crime of conspiracy.”
If Trump knew in advance about the meeting, he could be accused of having participated in a criminal conspiracy, the Post reports.
But, the newspaper adds, “It’s very unlikely Trump would be indicted on such a charge, especially given how speculative it is.”
Meanwhile, though Manafort’s conviction on eight felony counts of bank and tax fraud does not directly implicate Trump, it could strengthen the special counsel investigation and prompt Manafort to strike a deal and agree to cooperate with investigators, the Post says.
“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,” Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who now works at the firm McCarter & English, tells the Post.
Timothy Belevetz, a former federal prosecutor now with the firm Holland & Knight, called the Manafort verdict “an important milestone” for Mueller.
“So far, the office has charged more than 30 individuals and has secured a number of guilty pleas, which is not insignificant,” he said. “This is a big win for the special counsel.”