President Donald Trump suffered a major double blow when two former aides were exposed as criminals in separate court cases — with one accusing the US leader himself of committing a crime.
Michael Cohen, his ex-lawyer and “fixer”, said his former boss had directed him to pay hush money to influence the 2016 election. Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign manager, was convicted of financial fraud and faces a further trial in September.
The first case is potentially more serious for the president. Cohen’s lawyer says his client has information relevant to the official investigation into Russian election interference and alleged collusion between Trump’s team and Moscow.
What actually happened on Tuesday?
There were dramatic developments in two cases that arose from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, within minutes of each other.
In a deal with prosecutors, Michael Cohen — a close aide of Trump for a decade and his former personal lawyer — pleaded guilty in a federal court in New York to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations.
But he also indicated that his former boss had directed him to break federal election laws. Cohen admitted he had arranged payments to two women, alleging he had done so at the behest of “the candidate”, for the “principal purpose of influencing (the) election”.
In Virginia, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of tax and bank fraud, much relating to millions of dollars he earned as a political consultant for Ukraine’s former president.
The trial was not related to Trump’s campaign, which Manafort led for a few months in 2016. He was convicted on eight counts, but the judge ordered a mistrial on a further 10.
What are the main implications?
The now-proven crimes of Trump’s former close collaborators call into question his judgment and the nature of those who form his administration. Some commentators say this alone would be enough to endanger a US president in previous times.
Michael Cohen was also effectively accusing the president of the United States of joining him in criminal activity ahead of the 2016 election.
He testified that he made payments to silence two women — likely a reference to porn star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal — over alleged affairs with Trump “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office”. Trump has admitted reimbursing Cohen for one of the payments, after earlier denying knowledge.
The question is now raised as to whether the president himself could face legal action. It’s thought criminal charges are unlikely while he is president. However, impeachment by Congress under the US constitution is possible in principle — although the Democratic Party would probably have to win control of both houses.
Tuesday’s events are seen as a significant victory for Robert Mueller’s investigation, even though the trials are not related to the alleged Russian collusion and presidential obstruction. “Convictions tighten squeeze on Trump,” was the headline in the Washington Post.
Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis on Tuesday said his client was “more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows” about a possible conspiracy to corrupt the American democratic system in 2016, as well as computer hacking.
What do Donald Trump and his allies say?
The president’s first response to the developments in court was typically defiant: “nothing to do with Russian collusion, we continue the witch hunt”, he said.
Trump said he felt “very badly” for Paul Manafort, and a “sad thing that happened”, describing him as a “great man”. He did not answer questions about Michael Cohen.
Some key supporters of the president downplayed the significance of Manafort’s conviction. “Nothing to do with Trump or Russia”, conservative media host Bill Mitchell tweeted in capital letters.
Fox News commentator Sara A. Carter took a similar line. “No collusion, no crime”, she said on Twitter. One of her colleagues turned his fire on the Mueller investigation. “This case has always been an investigation in search of a crime which is backwards under the law,” said the channel’s analyst, ex-lawyer Gregg Jarrett. He accused the special counsel of “assembling a team of partisans to go after Donald Trump”.
There were no signs of any wavering among the president’s core fan base at a rally he held in West Virginia on Tuesday night. The crowd chanted “drain the swamp” and “lock her up” — a favourite refrain about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Leading Republicans were initially tight-lipped. The office of House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was “aware of Mr Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges” but would need “more information” to be able to comment.