U.S. President Donald Trump is lamenting Tuesday’s conviction on federal criminal charges of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who now faces the possibility of decades in prison.
“It’s a very sad thing that happened,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac of Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, adding he felt very badly for Manafort, who a jury found guilty of eight fraud charges.
The jury in Alexandria, Virginia, after four days of deliberation, could not reach a unanimous decision on 10 other charges and the judge declared a mistrial on those counts.
“This started as Russian collusion … this is a witch hunt that ends in disgrace. But this has nothing to do what they started out, looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none,” Trump told reporters, prior to speaking at a campaign rally in Charleston.
“Fake news and the Russian witch hunt,” said the president on the West Virginia stage. “Where is the collusion?”
Longtime personal attorney
A more serious potential legal development for Trump came around the same time as the Manafort verdict when his longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen entered guilty pleas to multiple charges and stated that hush payments to two women “for the principal purpose of influencing the election” were ordered by the presidential candidate in 2016.
Cohen did not directly name Trump as he answered questions from a judge in court Tuesday, but said one of the payments was “at the direction of a candidate for federal office” while the second was made “under direction of the same candidate.”
The amounts involved — payments of $130,000 and $150,000 — match those given to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal in the months before the 2016 election.
The Justice Department said Cohen “coordinated with one of more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments,” and that the result was that the two women did not publicize their alleged affairs with Trump.
Trump has denied both knowing about the payments or having affairs with Daniels or McDougal.
“The factual basis of the plea, potentially implicating the president in illegal campaign finance violations, adds to the president’s legal jeopardy,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, who is the top opposition member on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said his client is fulfilling a promise “to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump.”
Davis, on Twitter, said if the payments by Cohen to the two women – who have said they had a sexual relationship with Trump – were a crime, “then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Cohen’s plea was entered in a federal courtroom in New York City but did not include an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors, but attorneys say it does not preclude him from assisting the investigation of the special counsel, which brought the charges against Manafort and is examining ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
Trump has frequently criticized the probe, led by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, and called for it to be shut down. But the president has refrained from taking action that could lead to the dismantling of the investigation.
White House reaction
Asked to comment about Tuesday’s courtroom actions involving those formerly involved with Trump, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders referred reporters to the president’s tarmac comments about Manafort and to Trump’s outside counsel for reaction to Cohen’s plea deal.
David Abraham, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said the Manafort conviction shows “the Mueller investigation has discovered the rot at the core of the Trump circle and though this conviction is on the basis of Manafort’s pre-Trump engagement, it demonstrates the kind of activities and the kinds of people who are at the heart of the Trump campaign.”
“What was important for the Mueller inquiry about this trial is that an across the board acquittal would have fed the resources of the Trump circle who were trying to discredit the inquiry altogether. This is clear and definite proof of the rot,” Abraham added.
One of Trump’s lawyers, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, issued a statement after Cohen’s plea, saying, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
Giuliani’s statement accused the longtime loyal aide of Trump of “lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
Paul Schiff Berman, a professor of law at George Washington University Law School, said Cohen’s plea could endanger Trump legally.
“Certainly so in the Cohen guilty verdict, he is potentially now an unindicted co-conspirator and could be indicted,” he said. “Now there is an open question as to whether a sitting president can be indicted for a criminal wrongdoing.”
“In terms of a direct political consequence, I’m not sure that there is one, but that doesn’t mean that the pressure doesn’t get stronger and stronger and stronger on Trump,” Schiff Berman added.
U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami, who prosecuted Cohen, said in a statement that the disgraced lawyer’s “day of reckoning serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone.”
Asked about the possible legal consequences for the president, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was fired by Trump, said on CNN that “there’s something called impeachment if there’s evidence of a crime.”
Even on the Fox News Channel, which is consistently supportive of Trump, there was brief discussion of the possibility of impeachment proceedings if Democrats are able to take control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm election.
“It’s all crumbling on top of the president’s head,” NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd said as he came on air on the MSNBC channel just moments after details emerged about the Manafort convictions and the Cohen plea deal.
Manafort faces a second trial next month in Washington, where he will face charges focused on allegations of lying to the FBI, lobbying for foreign governments and money laundering. If convicted, Manafort could receive a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Abraham said Manafort’s trial in September “comes closer to the lobbying for foreign powers and in that sense it comes much closer … to the core of the Trump campaign activities than this trial did.”