Back-to-back legal blows put Trump presidency in peril
WASHINGTON—US President Donald Trump confronted one of the most perilous moments of his presidency on Tuesday after two onetime members of his inner circle simultaneously were labeled “guilty” of criminal charges.
Although Trump largely ignored the jarring back-to-back blows at a campaign rally in West Virginia, questions mounted about his possible legal exposure and political future.
In a split screen for the history books, Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was convicted of financial crimes at nearly the same moment Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a series of felonies, including campaign finance violations that the lawyer said he carried out in coordination with Trump.
With two men who played prominent roles on the president’s campaign convicted of multiple criminal charges, the investigations circled ever closer to Trump.
But for all that, Trump spent more than an hour at a rally in Charleston on Tuesday night painting a rosy view of his accomplishments in office, ticking off developments on trade, taxes, North Korea and even his plans for a Space Force.
“What we’re doing is winning,” Trump told cheering supporters.
“Where is the collusion?” he demanded, underscoring that Manafort’s crimes had occurred before he became involved with the Trump campaign. “You know they’re still looking for collusion.”
It is the Cohen case that places Trump in the most jeopardy, legal experts said, as the longtime personal “fixer” acknowledged his role in a scheme to pay off women who accused the future president of sexual misconduct.
“It’s going to be hard for the president to try to discredit all this. It’s circling him,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the case.
But Trump has shown an uncanny ability to shake off a relentless stream of accusations and jolting statements that provoked outrage.
His loyal base of supporters has stayed with him through various controversies.
Case in point, the crowd in West Virginia loudly chanted Trump’s campaign staples “Drain the swamp!” and “Lock her up!” despite the fresh corruption convictions and looming prison sentences for his former advisers.
Focus on midterm polls
In a separate courtroom on Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn agreed to postpone his sentencing after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian official, in a sign his cooperation was still needed in the Mueller probe.
The afternoon of explosive legal developments comes as the White House is refocusing itself around the upcoming midterm elections and as Trump allies like Steve Bannon seek to frame the election as a referendum on the potential impeachment of the president.
Trump confidants have long argued that the president’s fate in such a scenario would ultimately be more a matter of politics than law.
Of Cohen’s plea, Bannon argued on Tuesday that it “takes away the argument from those who are telling the president it’s not that bad if he loses the House. This now becomes more than ever a national election on the issue of impeachment.”
The president seemed to convey the stakes in Charleston, warning the crowd that “you aren’t just voting for a candidate. You’re voting for which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate.”
Deposing Trump under oath
Trump confidants reasserted late on Tuesday that it was the White House position that a president could not be indicted, referring to a 2000 opinion of the justice department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice and guidance to executive branch agencies.
Michael Avenatti, a lawyer pressing a civil case against Trump for porn star Stormy Daniels, who has said she had sex with the president, tweeted on Tuesday that the resolution of the criminal case against Cohen “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.”
The Supreme Court in 1997, ruling in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, held that a sitting president could be made to answer questions as part of a lawsuit. That ruling did not directly address whether a president could be subpoenaed to testify in a criminal investigation.
Inner circle worried
Despite blustery public denials, the fate of Manafort and Cohen has worried the president’s inner circle.
An FBI raid on Cohen’s New York office and hotel room in April rattled the president, who worried about what material Cohen may have had after working for the Trump Organization for a decade.
As he watched the courtroom proceedings of the Manafort trial, the president told confidants that he feared his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., could at some point be the one on trial, according to two people familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations.—AP
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