On Tuesday, August 20, 2018, Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to 8 federal charges, including 5 counts of tax evasion involving $4 million, one count of lying to a financial institution, and one count of willful cause of unlawful corporate contributions from June – October 2016 along with one excessive campaign contribution on October 27, 2016. The last charge is related to the $130,000 hush money payment Cohen arranged to porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her silent about an affair she had with Trump in 2006. Yet, more importantly, Cohen admitted that he did so at Trump’s direction and with the goal of influencing the election.
Since April 9, 2018 when the FBI raided and seized several electronic devices at his residence, office, and hotel room, Michael Cohen has been in deep legal trouble. Several months ago, New York federal investigators convened a grand jury to investigate him for “criminal conduct that largely centers on his personal business dealings” and “finances,” according to a court filing. They also obtained search warrants on several of his email accounts. This led to the April 9 raids with prosecutors looking for information on Cohen’s hush money payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels on Donald Trump’s behalf, hush money payments to other women like the $150,000 to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, efforts to suppress negative information about Trump during the 2016 campaign, and information about taxi medallions that Cohen owns. The penalties Cohen faces carry a sentence up to 65 years in prison, which he’s unlikely to face thanks to his plea deal with prosecutors. His sentencing is scheduled for December 12 and has been released on $500,000 bond.
Though Michael Cohen’s conduct was examined by special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference with the 2016 election, this indictment has nothing to do with it. But now has reached a deal with prosecutor, it’s not quite clear what this might mean for Donald Trump as one of his closest associates for decades may be facing serious legal consequences. While Cohen once said he’d take a bullet for Trump, recent events suggests otherwise since he’s soured on his old boss. This summer, he gave several public signals that he may be willing to cooperate with prosecutors, including releasing a secret recording of himself with Trump discussing a payoff to Karen McDougal. A CNN report also suggested Cohen had considered telling Mueller that Trump had advance knowledge of the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russians offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, which Trump has repeatedly denied. However, Cohen’s plea agreement doesn’t call for cooperation with prosecutors, including anyone on Mueller’s team. Yet, Cohen’s revelations deal a blow to Trump with the latter clearly listed as “Individual 1” in the charging documents. While there’s no allegation of wrongdoing against Trump in the government’s charges against Cohen, he’s the latest member of his inner circle charged with federal crimes.
Born on Long Island, New York, Michael Cohen initially found financial success in the 1990s as a personal injury lawyer and through various business investments tied to a New York City community of Ukranian immigrants. Later, he began investing in real estate, including Trump properties, which is how he entered Donald Trump’s orbit. In the early 2000s, Cohen intervened on the mogul’s side for condo board control of Trump World Tower in New York. Trump was impressed and offered Cohen a job in 2007 as executive vice president and special counsel for the Trump Organization. The job duties varied,, which earned him a perfect designation as a “fixer.” In his first few years, Cohen was involved in matters ranging from a New Jersey development project to MMA live events. By 2011, he took a leading role in advising Trump on his growing political ambitions, launching a website called “Should Trump Run?” and flying to Iowa to meet with Republican operatives. However, Trump ultimately ended up not running for president in 2012.
For a time, things went well for Michael Cohen. He took an even larger role in the Trump Organization helping to explore potential development projects in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Kazakhstan. He made high-dollar, eyebrow-raising real estate purchases. After Donald Trump officially launched his 2016 presidential campaign in July 2015, Cohen was quite busy behind the scenes. Some highlights include:
- Threatening a reporter- In July 2015, Michael Cohen tried to stop the Daily Beast from running a story about an old deposition Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana Trump made alleging that Trump raped her. Cohen did this by making profane threats to reporter Tim Mak in phone calls he recorded such as, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
- Asking for cash for the Trump Foundation- In August 2015, Ukranian steel billionaire Victor Pinchuk reached out through an intermediary and asked Donald Trump to speak at conference he was hosting in Kiev. Trump accepted. But the next day, Michael Cohen sent word back that Trump would require a $150,000 donation to the Trump Foundation as a speaking fee while the payment was made.
- Working on the Moscow Trump Tower project- In October 2015, the Trump Organization signed a letter of intent to build this tower. Russia-born developer Felix Sater emailed Michael Cohen, “I will get [Russian President Vladimir] Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” In January 2016, Cohen emailed Putin’s spokesperson Dimitry Peskov asking for help on the project but reportedly never got a response. The company abandoned the project soon afterwards.
- Arranging hush money payments- Most famously, Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Donald Trump just weeks before the 2016 election. Yet, he was also in a loop for a similar payment to the National Enquirer’s parent company American Media, Inc., which paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal for rights to her story of her 2006-2007 alleged affair with Donald Trump in August 2016. However, the deal wasn’t for the tabloid to publish her story, but to hush it up in exchange that it would publish some of her fitness columns. In July 2018, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis released a tape stating it was from September 2016 that included a recording between Trump and Cohen apparently discussing setting up a shell company to pay back AMI for hushing up McDougal’s story. The FBI reportedly seized the tape on Cohen’s property.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Michael Cohen announced he’d leave the Trump Organization but would continue work as his personal attorney, in what many observers see as an effort to hold on to his attorney-client privilege with his boss. Cohen also took on 2 new clients. One was Republican National Committee fundraiser Elliot Broidy who paid hush money to a Playboy Playmate he knocked up. The other was Fox News host and prominent conspiracy theorist, Sean Hannity, for services Hannity claims, “dealt almost exclusively about real estate.”
Michael Cohen’s legal troubles kicked into high gear on January 12, 2018 when the Wall Street Journal reported that he paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money near the end of the presidential campaign. As Election Day drew near, Daniels threatened to come forward with her story alleging her 2006 sexual encounter with Donald Trump. Since Cohen wanted to keep her quiet, he created the shell company called Essential Consultants LLC and wired the $130,000 to Daniels’ lawyers. The next day, Daniels and Cohen signed a nondisclosure agreement with its validity now subject to a lawsuit. Daniels complied. When the FBI raided Cohen’s office, residence, and hotel room and seized potential evidence, they were reportedly looking for anything related to the Daniels payment, among other things.
Nonetheless, what’s important is that Michael Cohen stated in court that he made hush money payments “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office” who is certainly Donald Trump “for the purpose of influencing” the 2016 election. His admissions directly implicate Trump listed as “Individual 1” in the charging documents. While the consequences of are yet unclear, this makes Trump an unindicted co-conspirator to a federal crime. But the big question is what sort of legal jeopardy does this put him, if at all? And perhaps, more importantly, what does this mean for Robert Mueller’s Russia probe? While legal experts may agree that Trump is undoubtedly guilty, they are uncertain of what happens next. Some say that Cohen is likely to cooperate with the Mueller probe as per lawyer’s recommendation since he knows where the bodies are buried in the Trump Organization along with its finances going many years. Some think that Trump is in deep shit and it’s only a matter of time that Trump will face legal jeopardy. Others don’t think he’ll face any legal consequences at this point since it’s unclear whether a sitting president can be indicted and Republicans in Congress have no interest to impeach him or hold him accountable.
Meanwhile, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was found guilty by a jury on 8 counts that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team charged him with in Virginia. These charges comprised of 5 counts of subscribing to false income tax returns, one count of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts (FBAR), and 2 counts of bank fraud. But thanks to one rogue Trump supporting juror, the other 10 counts ended in mistrial such as 3 FBAR charges, 2 bank fraud charges, and 5 bank fraud conspiracy charges. Though Mueller’s team can retry these charges against Manafort if they want to. On September 17, 2018, Manafort faces 7 more charges in a trial that will take place in Washington DC which will focus on much of his actual work in Ukraine than his finances, which are:
- 2 counts on conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to launder money- These 2 broad counts sum up what the government alleges was Paul Manafort’s overall “scheme” to violet US law with his unregistered foreign lobbying and undeclares finances.
- 3 counts on being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements- These relate to Paul Manafort’s initial lack of registration as a foreign lobbyist regarding his Ukranian work and later lying to the government about it.
- 2 counts on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice- The Mueller team added against Paul Manafort in June, after the government alleged that Manafort and his associate Konstantin Kilimnik had contacted witnesses this year and urged them to lie about their Ukranian lobbying. Kilimnik has also been charged with these 2 counts by the way.
There’s no doubt that Paul Manafort’s keeping quiet since he’s holding out for a Donald Trump pardon. Yet, it’s possible that Trump won’t go ahead if his association with his former campaign manager reflects badly on him. Nevertheless, as the Virginia jury convened, Manafort’s lawyers reportedly talked with Mueller’s team about a potential plea deal for the charges against him in Washington. Many have speculated that Mueller’s true goal is pressuring Manafort to “flip” against Trump, leading him to share information and become a cooperating witness to the probe into Russia campaign interference. And it’s at least possible that Manafort’s newfound conviction has changed his calculous and made him more likely to cooperate.
However, 2 important details in the Wall Street Journal’s report cast doubt on whether such a bombshell flip was truly on the agenda. First off, it’s said the Mueller talks’ goal was to forestall Paul Manfort’s next trial in Washington. Second, the talks fell apart due to unspecified “issues” Mueller raised. Apparently, Mueller didn’t seem impressed on what Manafort has to offer. Indeed, it’s unclear whether Manafort even offered any cooperation at all seeing how he’s clearly holding out for a Trump pardon. He might’ve just offered to plead guilty to avoid another expensive trial while the government can avoid an uncertain outcome. Furthermore, Trump has hinted he’s open to a pardon, which a plea deal with Mueller could totally ruin Manafort’s pardon prospects which are now more important now he’s convicted and facing prison time. Yet, a pardon may not be in Trump’s best interests since such gesture may make him seem complicit in Russian interference in 2016 or at least approving of Manafort’s actions. Then again, Helsinki summit with Putin already accomplished that so it’s a toss up. At any rate, it’s easy to see why Mueller would focus on Manafort in regards to Russia probe. He has connections with Russian oligarchs and pro-Russian leaders. He was Trump’s campaign manager during a critical moment in the 2016 election and was present at the infamous Trump Tower meeting that year. And he was already in trouble with the US government over his time in Ukraine that he was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after the conventions wrapped up, which made him very easy to indict. Furthermore, his right-hand man Rick Gates has already flipped on him.
Adding to Donald Trump’s troubles, National Enquirer publisher and CEO of American Media Inc. David Pecker has was granted immunity. In August 2016, the tabloid arranged a “catch and kill” deal with former Playboy model Karen McDougal in which she’d sell the rights to her story for $150,000 in exchange that she won’t publicly talk about it and get a few fitness articles published. Pecker’s involvement with McDougal’s payoff is well-documented, yet prosecutors revealed he was also surprisingly involved in paying off porn actress Stormy Daniels as well. So he knows a lot more about what behind the scenes with these hush money payments than we realized. Pecker’s cooperation could give prosecutors more evidence about Trump’s knowledge of the deals and whether he coordinated and directed those hush money payments. Pecker will not face criminal charges but he will be compelled to testify even if that means against his old friend Trump.
However, the Trump associate who we should watch for is Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg who’s also been granted immunity in exchange for giving prosecutors information. Though he’s not as visible in Trumpworld as Michael Cohen, he may be more important since he’s worked for Donald Trump and his family since the 1970s and has signed off on the company’s significant deals. If anyone knows anything about the Trump Organization’s finances and Trump’s decades long trail of high financial crimes, it’s him. For Trump rarely trusts anyone with his money. Granted he was subpoenaed into the investigation into Cohen, but it’s not confirmed whether he’s appeared in front of a grand jury. While Weisselberg has met with prosecutors, we’re not sure what information he provided, including whether Trump knew about the hush money payments. While the Cohen raid is seen as the biggest legal threat to Trump, Weisselberg’s willingness to talk may be an even bigger problem.