Donald Trump The Unindicted Co-Conspirator
No matter how long Donald Trump remains in office, August 21, 2018 will be the day that everything changed.
Of all the news to come out of yesterday’s conviction of Paul Manafort and the guilty plea by the President’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, the most significant is the fact that Michael Cohen implicated the President of the United States in a conspiracy to commit Federal crimes, essentially putting him in the same category as President Nixon with respect to the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up:
Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cohen acknowledged the illegal payments while pleading guilty to breaking campaign finance laws and other charges, a litany of crimes that revealed both his shadowy involvement in Mr. Trump’s circle and his own corrupt business dealings.
He told a judge in United States District Court in Manhattan that the payments to the women were made “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” implicating the president in a federal crime.
“I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.
The plea represented a pivotal moment in the investigation into the president, and the scene in the Manhattan courtroom was striking. Mr. Cohen, a longtime lawyer for Mr. Trump — and loyal confidant — described in plain-spoken language how Mr. Trump worked with him to cover up a potential sex scandal that Mr. Trump feared would endanger his rising candidacy.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have, for months, said privately that they considered Mr. Cohen’s case to be potentially more problematic for the president than the investigation by the special counsel.
But Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said in a statement after Mr. Cohen’s plea, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
In federal court in Manhattan, Mr. Cohen made the admission about Mr. Trump’s role in the payments to the women — an adult film actress and a former Playboy playmate — as he pleaded guilty to two campaign finance crimes.
One of those charges stemmed from a $130,000 payment he made to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors said that Trump Organization executives were involved in reimbursing Mr. Cohen for that payment, accepting his phony invoices that listed it as a legal expense. The other charge concerned a complicated arrangement in which a tabloid bought the rights to the story about the former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, then killed it.
As The Washington Post noted, other legal pleadings released yesterday demonstrate that Trump’s real estate company served as the conduit to reimburse the payments that Cohen made to Daniels and McDougal:
President Trump’s real estate company authorized paying $420,000 to lawyer Michael Cohen in his effort to silence women during the presidential campaign and then relied on “sham” invoices from Cohen that concealed the nature of the payments, according to legal filings released Tuesday.
The payments began flowing in February 2017, soon after Trump took office, when Cohen approached Trump Organization executives seeking to be reimbursed for “election-related” expenses, prosecutors said.
That included a $130,000 payment Cohen had made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels so she would remain silent about an alleged affair with Trump, according to the court documents.
Trump executives decided Cohen should be paid more than he sought — an additional $360,000 for expenses and other fees and taxes, plus a $60,000 bonus, prosecutors said.
The involvement of Trump’s company in the hush-money payments has been previously reported, but Tuesday’s documents, released as part of Cohen’s plea deal with federal prosecutors, offered the most detailed accounting yet of the full scope of the payments and the machinations inside the president’s company over how they were made.
While Trump removed himself from day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization after the election, he put his assets in a trust and retained his ownership stake.
A Trump spokesman referred questions to the Trump Organization, where a spokesman declined to comment on the arrangements Tuesday evening.
The documents point to two unnamed Trump Organization employees who prosecutors say approved the payments — with one executive instructing an employee to describe the fees to Cohen as legal expenses. The employee was instructed to put the words “retainer for the month of January and February 2017” in the description of the first payments, court filings said.
Cohen submitted monthly invoices and received all the monthly checks, according to the filings, for a total of $420,000.
“In truth and fact, there was no such retainer agreement, and the monthly invoices COHEN submitted were not in connection with any legal services he had provided in 2017,” prosecutors wrote.
Trump’s trust paid Cohen early in 2017, but according to Trump’s attorney, he personally paid Cohen the rest of the monthly invoices. The payments, as well as Cohen’s admission to prosecutors that he made illegal campaign contributions “in cooperation” with Trump’s campaign, present potential legal questions for Trump’s company and his campaign, experts said.
“If you believe the theory that the payment was made solely for the purpose of influencing a federal election, then the recipient of the benefit would be the Trump presidential campaign, and therefore they would have received an impermissible excessive contribution,” said Charlie Spies, who served as counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.
To put it bluntly, the facts as alleged and as admitted to by Michael Cohen under oath in court yesterday make the President of the United States an unindicted participant in a conspiracy to violate Federal law. In this particular case, the law(s) in question are those that place monetary limits on the amount that can be donated to a federal campaign either in cash or in the form of an in-kind contribution and the laws that require campaigns to report any such contributions as part of their regular Federal Election Commission reports. Additionally, the fact that the reimbursements for the payments made by Cohen were disguised in the form of phony invoices submitted to Trump’s real estate company arguably constitute mail and/or wire fraud, violations of Federal laws regarding filing false claims in connection with an election campaign, fraud, and other charges. In other words, in a fairly small number of words uttered in a lower Manhattan courtroom yesterday, Michael Cohen implicated his former client in a conspiracy to violate a number of Federal laws for the purposes of influencing a Federal election. If it weren’t for the fact that Trump is currently the sitting President, there’s a strong possibility that he would have been indicted along with Cohen on the charges related to the payments to Daniels and McDougal. This means that, effectively, the President of the United States is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Cohen case even though he is not officially named as such in the same matter that Richard Nixon was during the course of the Watergate prosecutions, at least not yet.00
As a matter of law, of course, it takes more than just the testimony of an accomplice like Michael Cohen to implicate Trump or any other co-conspirator in this or any other case. In addition to the rather obvious questions about Cohen’s own credibility, it is generally the case that accomplice testimony must be corroborated either by testimony from others or by documentary evidence. In this case, though, it seems clear that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has such evidence at hand. What it does based on that remains to be seen, but the importance and the severity of what happened yesterday cannot be understated. Donald Trump is more than just a buffoon in a job that he is clearly unqualified for, more than just a narcissistic xenophobe who has praised white supremacists as “very fine people” and appealed to the worst aspects of American politics to get elected. He is a man who engaged in a conspiracy to illegally influence the outcome of a Presidential election by illegally suppressing information. As such, he is an existential threat to the Republic. Nothing that happens between now and the day when he finally leaves office, either voluntarily or otherwise, will change that.