WASHINGTON – In a development that could pose serious political and legal risks for President Donald Trump, his former lawyer and longtime fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign-finance violations.
Cohen’s admission that he made six-figure payments to silence two women in advance of the 2016 election at Trump’s direction thrusts the president into the center of a legal storm.
“This is a real crime,” said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer who is now senior director of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center. “Since modern campaign-finance laws were passed, no sitting president has been found to be involved personally in a campaign-finance violation.”
Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said Trump also should face legal consequences. Cohen “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,” Davis said in a statement.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Davis added.
Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, pushed back, saying the government’s charges against Cohen contain “no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president.”
Instead, Giuliani said, they show Cohen “actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
It’s unlikely that Trump would face any immediate criminal charges from his Justice Department. Trump’s lawyers, including Giuliani, have said special counsel Robert Mueller already has told them he would abide by a longstanding Department of Justice view that the Constitution bars prosecuting sitting presidents.
Experts in campaign-finance law from coast to coast were unanimous in their judgment that Trump would be in immediate legal jeopardy if he were not president – and presumably free from indictment. If Cohen is to be believed, they said, Trump conspired to violate the law by directing payments to the women to gain their silence and boost his election prospects.
“I think the president is all but being named as an unindicted co-conspirator,” Duke University law professor Lisa Kern Griffin said.
And George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin notes that “nothing precludes him from being indicted after he leaves the presidency.”
The biggest potential risk to Trump in the short-term: a Democratic takeover of Congress. Noble and others warned that Cohen’s plea deal implicating Trump could be the basis for impeachment proceedings in the House.
“This adds a lot of ammunition for people in Congress who decide that they do want to find an impeachable offense,” said Jessica Levinson, a law professor specializing in campaign finance at Loyola Law School
A stunning downfall
Cohen’s guilty pleas in a New York courtroom mark a stunning downfall for Trump’s combative former lawyer and longtime fixer who once told Fox News he would “take a bullet” for the president.
The campaign-finance violations center on payments to two women who said they had affairs more than a decade ago with the real-estate magnate and reality TV star and received hush money for their silence as he drew closer to the presidency.
Under federal law, an individual could not donate more than $2,700 directly to Trump’s primary or general election campaign in 2016. On Tuesday, Cohen pleaded guilty to making an excessive campaign contribution “at the request of a candidate.”
Federal prosecutors in New York long have been investigating whether Cohen’s actions, including a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, violated campaign-finance laws.
Daniels, who said she had sex with Trump in 2006, received $130,000 from Cohen days before the election in exchange for her silence.
The money paid to Daniels flowed through Essential Consultants, a limited-liability company Cohen created in Delaware several weeks before the election. Federal law bars direct corporate contributions to federal candidates.
After months of denying knowledge of the payments, Trump in May filed a financial disclosure report showing he reimbursed Cohen for the Daniels payment.
In addition, prosecutors zeroed in on a payment to another woman, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy centerfold who said she had an affair with Trump that began in 2006.
McDougal received a $150,000 payment in August 2016 from the parent company of the National Enquirer. But the tabloid did not publish the story, keeping it out of public view.
The head of the Enquirer’s parent company, David Pecker, is a Trump ally. In a lawsuit she has since settled, McDougal argued that Cohen secretly intervened in the deal she struck with the tabloid’s owner.
Trump and his allies have denied the sexual relationships.
In July, news emerged of a secret audio recording Cohen made of Trump in 2016 on which Trump appears to indicate he knew of the payment to McDougal, the Playboy model.
Daniels is suing to break free of her confidentiality agreement. That case was delayed because of the ongoing criminal investigation into Cohen in New York.
The actress’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, said “we’ve been absolutely vindicated” and called for the Daniels’ lawsuit to proceed, so he can question the president under oath.
“The developments of today will permit us to have the stay lifted in the civil case & 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,” Avenatti tweeted. “We will disclose it all to the public.”
Contributing: Richard Wolf, Kevin Johnson and David Jackson
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