Yesterday, on a stormy and bombastic afternoon in Alexandria, Va., a jury in federal court found Paul Manafort guilty on eight of 18 charges: five counts of tax fraud; two counts of bank fraud; and one failure to disclose a foreign account. The crimes carry a maximum combined sentence of 80 years, but the former Trump campaign chair will more likely serve somewhere between three and ten. Manafort’s spokesman said he expects to appeal.
On the same afternoon, another close Trump associate—the President’s former personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen—turned himself in to authorities at the federal court in the Southern District of New York, where he pleaded guilty to eight felonies: tax evasion; making a false statement to a financial institution; and campaign finance violations. Cohen also faces several years in prison on the charges.
If those two events weren’t staggering enough, though, there was also this: Cohen, in his sworn statement in federal court, accused Donald Trump (named only as “the federal candidate”) of directing him to commit some of these felonies. Cohen claimed he worked “at direction of the candidate” and the National Enquirer to silence Trump’s former mistress, erstwhile Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal. Cohen also said his $130,000 payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels—made less than two weeks before the election to muffle her decade-old affair with Trump—was made “in coordination with and at the direction of the candidate for federal office.” (Trump initially denied knowing about the payment.) Cohen went even further, alleging that Trump personally reimbursed him for the $130,000, adding that (emphasis mine) “we knew what we were doing was illegal.”
It was stunning to watch these two guys fall on the same day. (I was in the court when the jury handed down the Manafort verdict.) Those few hours were stuffed with a lot of news that implicated a lot of powerful, rotten people. We also now have to navigate lot of tricky legal questions most of us have never encountered before. Here, then, is how to make sense of the most important aspects of these stories, and what it all might hold for the future of the functionally illiterate criminal now leading the country. Bottom line: The next few months will likely be some of the most politically volatile in American history.
The biggest story of the day, by far. Cohen said under oath in federal court that Donald Trump directed him to break federal election laws. That would be a felony. This really doesn’t need much elaboration.
But how will Trump try to beat those charges? He’ll probably try to discredit Cohen’s character (which won’t work; more in the next section), and he’ll probably also try to spin the payments as not having anything to do with his candidacy or the campaign. But the payments to Daniels and McDougal were made just weeks ahead of the election. They address affairs many years in the past (both women apparently had sex with Trump on the same weekend in 2007) and were clearly intended to protect Trump’s candidacy.
Those are felonies. But how do we know Cohen is telling the truth and not just lying in hopes of getting a softer sentence? Does he really have the goods?
A legal expert pointed out to me that no court would have accepted Cohen’s plea deal (he pleaded guilty to reduce his sentence) based on hearsay alone. Cohen would have had to assure the court he had evidence that would corroborate his allegations about a third party, especially considering those allegations are about a felony conspiracy involving the President of the United States. And indeed, after Cohen entered his plea, his defense team read aloud a list of evidence it could bring to bear. Remember also that the feds obtained several electronic devices and over a million of documents from Cohen via search warrant.
Also important, Cohen can’t plead the fifth to any of this, because his guilty plea means he can no longer incriminate himself.
This is a tough one: Why did Cohen plead guilty without also cooperating with the feds?
One take: Cohen might be playing both sides for as long as he possibly can, perhaps holding out for a pardon. (I don’t think we’ve ever seen a presidential pardon on top of a guilty plea.) Alternatively, Cohen might very well have have offered to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, but was turned down. There are any number of reasons Mueller would have rejected an offer, not least of which being that Cohen is about the last person you’d ask a jury to put their faith in. Besides, if Mueller already has all the hard evidence to support Cohen’s claims (evidence obtained earlier via search warrant), Mueller doesn’t need the shady Cohen to get up on the witness stand and, sweating and breathing heavily into a unidirectional microphone, make those claims to a jury. That’s especially true if all of Cohen’s knowledge about the campaign is redundant to what Mueller already knows.
As for Cohen’s fate, he’s going to prison for at least a few years. The feints at Trump in this deal, though, suggest Cohen might still make a play for a further reduced sentence. Of course, he might also face other charges we’re not yet aware of.
Cohen accused Trump of directing criminal activity that none of us had ever heard about until a porn star said something. That’s incredibly important for the politics of impeachment: These charges come straight from Cohen, and their origins have no connection to the Mueller investigation. It will be hard for the GOP to spin this, and tough to outright dismiss calls for impeachment as politically motivated and unsubstantiated.
This is all hard stuff: no 17 Angry Dems, no shadowy conspiracies, no outrageous claims about a pee pee tape (though Daniels said she did spank Trump with a magazine that had his face on it), and yesterday it came straight from Cohen. If Cohen is also willing to get political and offer evidence of Trump’s involvement in the Russia conspiracy, it gets exponentially worse. For instance, Cohen already accused Trump of advanced notice of the Trump Tower meeting, and yesterday his attorney, Lanny Davis, indicated Cohen would be willing to testify that Trump knew in advance about the DNC hack.
Also important: These felonies are campaign-related, and Trump is running again in 2020. Would the GOP support a candidate whose campaign will be dogged by accusations of campaign corruption—accusations backed by hard evidence? Further, if Trump broke election law in his bid for the presidency, how is that election valid? And what does that mean for things such as his SCOTUS nominees, most critically Kavanaugh?
It was great to see a jury of Americans hold Paul Manafort accountable yesterday. That said, the Manafort verdict was a little disappointing. Manafort faced spending the rest of his life in jail (he still might), and the evidence against him was overwhelming. In the end, though, he was convicted on less than half the charges against him (eight out of eighteen). He faces 80 years max, but will likely serve a tiny, tiny fraction of that. The prison time also incentivizes Manafort to work out a plea deal ahead of his next trial, which is scheduled for September.
It’s important to note that the ten counts the Manafort jury couldn’t reach consensus on all relied heavily on testimony from Manafort’s former business partner, Richard Gates. Manafort’s lawyers argued that Gates was the real criminal here, and accused him of lying about the whole thing. It worked.
We can take this a couple of ways. One, it’s good because cold evidence prevailed where it could. Then again it might not augur so well if it suggests that one or two jurors in a pool will dig their heels in and resist any count that has a glimmer of subjectivity. That might not be such good news going forward for Mueller, who might have to hang future trials on testimony from Gates, one of his most important cooperating witnesses. The trials will also get increasingly political, and as they do it’s more likely that Trump-supporting jurors will reject facts in the name of exonerating the President.
The biggest story is how normal the Manafort trial was: The Russia investigation has sent us careening through a hall of mirrors, but yesterday the law more or less held steady. It’s a welcome relief to see someone finally held accountable, and the guilty verdicts afforded us a chance to step back and steady ourselves. It also marks a major turning point for Mueller’s work.
Manafort’s crimes weren’t all that unusual, either. What was unusual, though, was the President of the United States repeatedly and deliberately interfering in the trial, including tommy-gun twitter attacks on the special counsel and guileless outspoken vouching for the defendant. Also unusual, considering the circumstances, was the jury’s vulnerability (they weren’t sequestered) to outside influence of all kinds, including from the president as well as from media reports and analysis. This will come up in future trials, and it will be a major test for our jury system.
I know I said the Cohen stuff was the biggest news, but it’s really hard to overstate this point. I can try, though: Trump’s campaign manager is a convicted felon and will go to prison. Trump didn’t succeed at blowing up the Manafort trial. He didn’t get the jury to acquit. Major charges stuck, and we’re not even finished with Manafort.
There are just a few notes to add. Yesterday, we also learned that Mueller delayed again the sentencing of Mike Flynn, American Patriot. The delay is likely dependent on Flynn’s cooperation or contributions to upcoming criminal proceedings. We’re also due any week now for Mueller’s report on the obstruction of justice arm of his investigation, though the only people who have made any noise about this are on Trump’s side. It’s not clear what Mueller’s true schedule is or has ever been. The President’s team said Mueller told them he’d have a report ready by the end of the summer, but that timeline was predicated on Trump sitting for an interview, which he isn’t going to do. So, who knows.
And so, though I hate to leave you with this thought, I must: All of this is set to collide with a national election we’re somehow supposed to execute freely and fairly two months from now under the administration of an increasingly frightened, pig-eyed criminal psychopath.