Cohen Pleads Guilty and Manafort Is Convicted. Is Impeachment Next?

Talk of the possible impeachment of President Trump is growing in Washington after Tuesday’s stunning legal developments. In New York, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations. Two hundred miles away, in Virginia, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight charges related to tax fraud and bank fraud. The Cohen case is likely to put the president in the most legal jeopardy. Cohen, who worked for Trump from 2006 until this year, admitted in court that he arranged to illegally pay out money to two women—an adult film star and a Playboy model—to keep them from speaking during the 2016 campaign about their affairs with Donald Trump. Cohen said the payments were made “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and that they were made “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis wrote on Twitter, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” We speak with Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: Talk of the possible impeachment of President Trump is growing in Washington after Tuesday’s stunning legal developments. In New York, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations. Two hundred miles away in Virginia, Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight charges related to tax and bank fraud, as well as hiding a foreign account.

The Cohen case is likely to put the president in the most legal jeopardy. Michael Cohen worked for Trump from 2006 until this year. He admitted in court he arranged to illegally pay out money to two women—an adult film star and a Playboy model—to keep them from speaking during the 2016 campaign about their affairs with Donald Trump. Cohen said the payments were made, quote, “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and that they were made, quote, “for the principal purpose of influencing the election,” unquote.

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, wrote on Twitter, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Davis later appeared on MSNBC and said Cohen is willing to speak with special counsel Robert Mueller about, quote, “a conspiracy to collude” with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Davis also told The Washington Post Cohen knows about Trump’s participation in a criminal conspiracy to hack into Democratic Party officials’ emails during the 2016 election.

Michael Cohen becomes the fourth former Trump official to plead guilty to criminal charges. He joins former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s former campaign—deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Michael Cohen will be sentenced on December 12th. He’ll likely be sentenced to four to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, a jury convicted Paul Manafort on eight of 18 charges, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the other counts. Sentencing experts expect him to receive a prison term of about 10 years. The Manafort charges stem from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but the case against Manafort focused on the work he did before he became President Trump’s campaign manager. Manafort was accused of hiding millions of dollars earned in Ukraine in overseas bank accounts and failing to pay taxes on the money. On Tuesday, President Trump briefly spoke with reporters about the Manafort verdict.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I feel badly for both. I must tell you that Paul Manafort is a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan. He was with a lot of different people over the years. And I feel very sad about that. It doesn’t involve me, but I still feel—you know, it’s a very sad thing that happened. This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion. This has absolutely nothing to do—this is a witch hunt, and it’s a disgrace.

AMY GOODMAN: The question now is whether Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort will cooperate with Mueller’s investigation in exchange for lesser sentences. Or will President Trump pardon one or both men? To help answer these questions and more, we’re joined by investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net, joining us from Michigan.

Marcy, welcome to Democracy Now! An epic day yesterday, when two of President Trump’s—well, his closest adviser, fixer, his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, both guilty. Talk about the verdicts yesterday.

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, it’s not often we need a split screen for guilty verdicts. Usually that’s reserved for sporting events. But the Manafort guilty verdicts were pretty much expected, because the case against him was a slam dunk. It was tax fraud. It was some bank fraud.

The charges that the jury was not able to reach a verdict on involved charges where Rick Gates’s testimony was central, so it seems like some people on the jury may not have found him all that credible, and also one charge where—Trump says it didn’t involve him. That’s not actually true. There was one charge where Manafort was trying to get a loan in 2016 from a banker in Chicago and promising him positions once Trump took the White House. And the impression is the jury decided that he was going to get that—Manafort was going to get that loan regardless of what kind of claims he made to the banker. And so, those are the charges that he wasn’t found guilty on.

But they’re both tax cheats. They’re both involved in other crimes. As you emphasized, the very interesting thing for Trump are the two hush money payments involved with the Cohen crime, because, there, he quite clearly said, and the criminal information said—I think it was the 46th word in the criminal information, named—named Trump, basically—didn’t name him by name, but said, you know, the person went on to become president of the United States—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go—

MARCY WHEELER: —and named him as—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

MARCY WHEELER: Go ahead. And named him as being part of the conspiracy to pay off these women so as to hide these affairs for the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to U.S. Deputy Attorney Robert Khuzami announcing the felony charges that Michael Cohen pled guilty to yesterday.

ROBERT KHUZAMI: Today, as you heard, Michael Cohen pled guilty to eight felony charges. Five of those dealt with tax evasion for the years 2012 through 2016, in which he failed to report approximately $4.1 million in reported income. … In addition, Mr. Cohen pled guilty to two campaign finance charges, one for causing an unlawful corporate contribution and a second one for personally making an excessive personal contribution, both for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election. In addition, what he did was he worked to pay money to silence two women who had information that he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 campaign and to the candidate and the campaign. In addition, Mr. Cohen sought reimbursement for that money by submitting invoices to the candidate’s company which were untrue and false.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcy Wheeler, this the—really the biggest news. While Paul Manafort was the campaign chair for President Trump, you have Michael Cohen not only saying he committed a crime—he wasn’t even indicted, he just pled guilty yesterday, in a kind of unusual move where this happened all very fast. He not only said he was guilty, but he said that the president was guilty of ordering him to do this.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. In his statement in the courtroom—we don’t get cameras there, so we can’t play it. But in his statement in the courtroom, he was very clear that he did this with the involvement, at the behest of Donald Trump. So, while the Russian investigation is going to name Trump, and technically sort of did in the GRUindictment, it made it clear that he asked for Russia to hack Hillary, and they immediately did. But here, he is named explicitly, so it’s the first time in these wide-ranging legal investigations that he is being named and being accused of committing a crime—to cheat to get elected, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Michael Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, speaking Tuesday night on MSNBC.

LANNY DAVIS: Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel, and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows, not just about the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election—which the Trump Tower meeting was all about—but also knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on. And we know he publicly cheered it on. But did he also have private information?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that’s Michael Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis. Talk about the significance of what he’s saying, and what kind of information he’s offering to Robert Mueller, to Mueller.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s not actually clear. Cohen has been pursuing a cooperation agreement for well over a month, probably a couple of months, and Mueller did not take him up on that, at least as far as has been made public. Clearly, Cohen implicated Trump in the hush payments, but he has not—as part of yesterday’s plea agreement, he has not publicly implicated Trump in any of the Russia-related crimes. So I’m not convinced that this guilty plea is more important than Manafort’s guilty verdicts yesterday, because Trump a long time ago said, “I think I’m OK, so long as Paul Manafort doesn’t flip on me. Paul Manafort is the only one who can really bring me down,” because it is true, or Cohen claims that he knows information about when Trump knew certain things about the hack and leak. But even Omarosa says that she already talked to Mueller’s people about that.

So, it’s possible—I mean, several things are possible, Amy. One is that Cohen’s right, and he will go talk to Mueller, and he will get some lesser sentence because he does it. It’s possible that Mueller doesn’t need Cohen’s cooperation, and Mueller wants to indict Cohen for part of the conspiracy, as well. And it’s possible that Mueller just doesn’t want to cooperate with Cohen because he’s been spending so much time talking to the press. We know that he—with George Papadopoulos, for example, as soon as Papadopoulos went to the press, he stopped trying to cooperate with Papadopoulos entirely. So, we don’t actually know.

What we do know is that, according to Trump’s own understanding of the circumstance, for whatever that’s worth, Paul Manafort is the one person who can bring him down. Now, Rick Gates has been cooperating since February, and Rick Gates knew most of what Paul Manafort knew, and Rick Gates is the only one of the many people that you said, that you described as who had already plead, who got a very sweet plea deal. I mean, he got excused from all of the financial crimes that Paul Manafort was found guilty of yesterday, some other ones in D.C. He was excused from some of his own role in the conspiracy with Russia. So, Rick Gates, as far as we know, is the one who’s offering the big cooperation. And that puts both Cohen and Paul Manafort on much shakier grounds if they believe they’re going to get a lesser sentence by cooperating with Mueller.

AMY GOODMAN: And who exactly is Lanny Davis? Which is very interesting. Michael Cohen has chosen him as his lawyer, the former Clinton legal adviser. That’s President Clinton in the 1990s, when he was president.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. But Lanny’s function here is not to be a lawyer. Cohen’s got a different lawyer, who used to work in Southern District of New York. That lawyer was picked because he knows the people who were prosecuting him in New York, and he has the ability, to the extent that it’s possible, to negotiate a plea deal. Lanny Davis’s job is to go on TV and make statements like he did yesterday. That’s really been his function for a long time now. He’s in some ways the Democratic equivalent of Paul Manafort. He’s about press these days, more than he is about lawyering.

But again, I’m not sure that working the press is going to get you a plea deal with Robert Mueller. He has made it very clear he doesn’t want any of this in the press. He doesn’t want to work via the press. He’s been unbelievably good at not leaking anything. And so, hiring a Democratic lawyer to go and appear on TV and make allegations about the president isn’t necessarily going to help Cohen’s legal plight at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Burr and Warner, who are heading up the Senate committee that is investigating Russian interference, saying that this might influence, what Michael Cohen has said, might want to question him? And what this means, Michael Cohen going before Congress?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, Cohen already testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee. And there, he said he didn’t know of any prior knowledge of the June 9th meeting. And some of the public statements that he and Lanny Davis have made seem to contradict that. And so, yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee, in the wake of this plea deal, basically contacted his lawyers and said, “Does his prior testimony before the committee—does it still hold?” And they’ve threatened to call him back to test the claims that he’s made before.

You know, yeah, I’m a little bit jaded about what Richard Burr is doing here. The investigation, yes, it is credible. Yes, it is bipartisan. There are only seven people investigating it, according to public reports. They’re still working on reviewing what the Intelligence Committee knew by January 2017. So they’re not getting to the guts of whether there really was collusion. So it’s sort of Richard Burr’s job to go and test these claims, and go on TV and claim that there was no collusion, rather than to really get to the core of whether there was or not. And I think that’s more of what’s going on here than really trying to get to the bottom of things. But we will—because the Senate Intelligence Committee already got testimony from Michael Cohen, we will learn quickly whether he’s backing off his prior testimony because of yesterday’s move.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, and might want to get more testimony from him. But I’d like to turn to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who said in a statement on Tuesday that the White House is looking increasingly like a criminal enterprise. This is Blumenthal speaking on CNN with Wolf Blitzer last night.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: We’re in a Watergate moment, where the two parties have to come together. We need bipartisanship now more than ever, to protect the special counsel and to stop—and I must underscore stop—any consideration of pardons, which undoubtedly will be another—

WOLF BLITZER: President has a right to pardon Paul Manafort, for example, if he wanted to.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: He has the power to pardon Paul Manafort, but he would be screaming to the world, “I am guilty.” And he would so undermine the credibility of his office that it would be a disaster for the nation. And it would very possibly be an obstruction of justice, because he would be misusing that power to protect himself as a target of that investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Blumenthal speaking on CNN. Marcy Wheeler, the possibility of pardoning Manafort and Michael Cohen—and/or Michael Cohen?

MARCY WHEELER: Right, and Cohen, this morning, is already out saying he won’t take a pardon, which I doubt, but that’s what he’s saying, or Lanny Davis is saying on TV. Back in January or February, The New York Times actually reported that Trump had preemptively offered both Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort pardons. And a lot of what has happened in the Manafort case, you sort of have to believe that, because yesterday’s verdicts were not a surprise. The case was overwhelming against him. And so it was sort of suicidal for him to go through trial, because his sentence will be much stiffer—I mean, just as a comparison, as you said, he is expected to get at least 10 years, whereas Cohen is going to get five or fewer. Similar kinds of crimes, right? So, for having gone to trial, Manafort is going to get twice the sentence. And so, one of the most logical explanations for that is he’s expecting a pardon.

But because Mueller already knows—in fact, this is one of the questions that he wants to ask Trump, apparently—Mueller already knows that this pardon has been offered preemptively, I think that that would count as obstruction of justice. It’s also not that easy to do well. The last time we were in this kind of situation, George Bush commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence right when he was about to go to prison. And that meant that Libby wasn’t going to prison, but also still retained his Fifth Amendment privilege against testimony. That’s the kind of thing he would have to do with Manafort. And it’s not clear that that would be enough to silence Manafort going forward, because if he pardons Manafort today, then Manafort—depending on how broad the pardon is, then Manafort can be asked to testify, without incriminating himself, on the Russia stuff, which is what Trump has already said is what Manafort is most threatening to him for. So, it’s sort of hard to do. It’s unclear whether he will do—I mean, he’s pardoning everyone anyway, but it’s not clear that that’s going to achieve the objectives that he really wants, which is to skate free of what he himself has done with the conspiracy to win the election—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marcy—

MARCY WHEELER: —with multiple, now, we can say—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. “We can say”?

MARCY WHEELER: Sorry—with multiple conspiracies. I mean, there’s the conspiracy to silence the women and the conspiracy to work with Russia to win the election. So now we can speak in multiple terms.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said in a statement, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that as the prosecutor noted Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.” On Sunday, Giuliani appeared on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd to defend President Trump.

RUDY GIULIANI: What I have to tell you is, look, I’m not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury. And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly, because it’s somebody’s version of the truth, not the truth. He didn’t have a conversation about—

CHUCK TODD: Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like—

RUDY GIULIANI: No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth. The president of the United States says, “I didn’t”—

CHUCK TODD: “Truth isn’t truth”? Mr. Mayor, do you realize what—I mean—

RUDY GIULIANI: No, no, no. What—

CHUCK TODD: This is going to become a bad meme.

RUDY GIULIANI: Don’t—don’t do—don’t do—don’t do this to me.

CHUCK TODD: Don’t do “Truth isn’t truth” to me.

RUDY GIULIANI: Donald Trump—Donald Trump says, “I didn’t talk about Flynn with Comey.” Comey says, “You did talk about it.” So tell me what the truth is.

AMY GOODMAN: Rudy Giuliani saying, “Truth is not truth.” But, Marcy Wheeler, I want to go a step further, to this issue of impeachment and what can happen here. We are so close, 11 weeks away from the midterm elections. Also, you know, Brett Kavanaugh, they’re trying to push him through before the election, the possibility of a flipping of the House or the Senate or the House and the Senate. But what about this possibility of impeachment?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, we don’t know. I mean, Rudy Giuliani, both of those clips are him playing games. Neither of those are credible. It’s not clear he even understands the legal risk that the president is under. He really should stop being invited on TV to go and just play with the press, because he’s not providing any news or anything credible. But Mueller knows that. Mueller knows that Rudy is playing games. Mueller knows that Rudy is trying to stall. Mueller knows that Rudy is trying to stall long enough to get Kavanaugh confirmed. And so we don’t know, and Mueller is not telling, what he plans to do in response.

One of the things that was interesting and less newsworthy yesterday is he extended the cooperation, the continuation of Mike Flynn’s sentencing, but only until September 17th, which is shorter than any of the other extensions, continuations. And so that suggests that Mueller has got some things up his sleeve in the next 24 days. And I wouldn’t be so surprised to expect some major moves from Mueller, while Rudy is on TV kind of playing with the press and uttering nonsense. So, we don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m sure Mueller recognizes the risk of the stall games that Rudy and Trump are trying to play. I guess we just wait to see how Mueller is going to respond to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy, before we end, I wanted to ask you about your personal connection to the Mueller probe. Last month, you wrote, quote, “Sometime last year, I went to the FBI and provided information on a person whom I had come to believe had played a significant role in the Russian election attack on the US.” This led you to being a witness in special counsel Mueller’s investigation. Explain.

MARCY WHEELER: Sort of. I went to the FBI about something that was not part of the Mueller investigation. And as I understand it, it subsequently got moved under the Mueller investigation. So, yeah, I’ve got a little bit of insight into things that are not yet public about people unrelated to Trump. I did, in that post, note that the person in question knew what Trump was doing within 15 hours of the polls closing last year—or, in 2016, after the election. But beyond that, I can’t really explain what the person that I went to the FBI about did. It just—it does lead me to believe that there are a lot of things about the Mueller inquiry, or the things that are now under Mueller’s investigation, that people just aren’t aware of in public and that I think will surprise people.

AMY GOODMAN: And did you reveal your sources to him? Explain further what you did explain publicly.

MARCY WHEELER: I went and talked to the FBI about something that I believed this source had done, roles that I believed he had played in the election. And I did that—the way I did it was, in part, an effort to protect my other sources and to protect my readers, because I believed if I had not done that, the FBI would come and start getting call records for everyone who goes to my site. I went to them, and I said, “You can have this, but you can’t—you know, I’m not going to talk to you about any of my other sources or any other journalists or what have you.” So, it was sort of a preemptive effort to stop what I viewed as somebody doing ongoing damage, without impacting my other equities, I guess. So, we’ll see whether I made the right decision, but I—

AMY GOODMAN: So, originally, he was a source, and then you came to be—

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —very concerned about him, and so told the FBI who he was.

MARCY WHEELER: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And he, you believe—what was it that he did, that you felt needed to be exposed?

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, I’m not going to say that. I think it’ll—you know, it’ll become clear in the future. But it was just—it was clear at the time I made the decision to go to the FBI that he was engaged in ongoing serious damage and hurting other people, and hurting innocent people. So I felt like I could not stay silent about that any longer. But I also felt like I couldn’t go to the press. I couldn’t just publish it, because, in my understanding, that would probably exacerbate things. It would lead him to do something unreasonable, and it might lead to increasing the damage rather than decreasing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marcy Wheeler, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties, runs the website EmptyWheel.net, speaking to us from Michigan.

This is Democracy Now! President Trump, as all of this was unfolding—his former campaign chair, his longtime lawyer and fixer, guilty—he went to West Virginia to hold a rally and make an announcement about the rollback of coal emissions regulations, that will lead to, it’s believed, well over a thousand people dying prematurely in the years to come per year. Stay with us.