Federal prosecutors have accused President Trump of committing a federal crime by directing illegal hush money to two women during the presidential election. The accusation was revealed Friday in filings made public by the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, including a damning sentencing memo for Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who has admitted to paying adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the campaign in order to prevent them from speaking to the media about their alleged affairs with Trump. The sentencing memo was made public along with two new sentencing memos from special counsel Robert Mueller: one for Cohen and another for Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort. “We keep talking about whether you can indict a sitting president,” says independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, editor of EmptyWheel.net. “There’s still a debate about that, but, really critically, you can indict a corporation. You can indict Trump Organization.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Federal prosecutors have accused President Trump of committing a federal crime by directing illegal hush money to two women during the presidential election. The accusation was revealed Friday in filings made public by the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, including a damning sentencing memo for President Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who has admitted to paying the women. The memo states, quote, “With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. … He acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” end-quote. “Individual-1” is a reference to President Donald Trump. The payments were made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the campaign in order to prevent them from speaking to the media about their alleged affairs with Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: The sentencing memo was made public Friday along with two new sentencing memos from special counsel Robert Mueller: one for Cohen and another for Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort.
We go now to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re joined by independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. She edits EmptyWheel.net and has been closely following the multiple investigations of President Trump.
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Marcy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you explain what’s most significant about these filings? And just for people to understand, we’re talking about filings from two different places, from the Mueller inquiry and from the US court in New York, from the prosecutor’s office, from the US Attorney’s Office.
MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, there’s two sentencing memos, actually, both for Cohen — one out of Manhattan, as you said, the US Attorney’s Office in New York, and one out of Mueller’s office. And then, the Manafort thing is actually not a sentencing memo. It’s just a memo laying out the lies he told and the reasons he — that the government has said that he violated his plea agreement, and all of the benefits that he thought he was going to get out of that are now gone.
The news that is catching attention is what you just said, which is that in the New York sentencing memo, it makes it very clear — doesn’t accuse Trump yet, but it makes it very clear that what Cohen did in setting up these hush payments, and, importantly, getting reimbursed by Trump Organization for these hush payments, he did it with Donald Trump’s knowledge and on his instructions. And there’s been a — in the right wing, they’re sort of saying, “Well, this is just a minor campaign finance” — actually, Trump this morning tweeted out and said that, as well. But what they’re missing is that the language the US attorney in New York uses is very clearly talking about fraud to carry out that campaign finance violation. So, for example, they point to all of the efforts Cohen and the Trump Organization used the hide the payments and to hide what they were actually for, things like the shell company that Cohen set up to carry out the payments.
And so, I would expect the next charges, the ones that might name Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator but will almost certainly name Trump Organization, because, remember, his company can be indicted, and also probably whichever one of his children is named in those filings, as well, they’re going to be charged with what’s called conspiracy to defraud the United States. And the argument is that any time you carry out fraud to hide the fact — to hide stuff that prevents the government from doing regulatory work, when you do that, that’s a crime in and of itself, irregardless of how serious the campaign finance violation is. So, that seems to be where they’re going in New York.
There’s a bunch of stuff in the other two memos that say Mueller has similar kinds of crimes coming in his investigation, as well as the conspiracy with Russia. There’s still some hints that that’s going to come reasonably soon, as well.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Marcy, I want to go to Democratic Congressmember Jerry Nadler, the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He was interviewed on Sunday by CNN’s Jake Tapper about Michael Cohen’s admission that he made illegal hush money payments to two women at the direction of President Trump.
JAKE TAPPER: If it’s proven, are those impeachable offenses?
REP. JERRY NADLER: Well, they would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. But certainly they’d be impeachable offenses, because even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office. That would be the — that would be an impeachable offense.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Marcy Wheeler, can you comment on what Nadler said, its significance? And these are, in fact, impeachable offenses, he says.
MARCY WHEELER: The idea is that you cheated to win. You cheated to win the office of the presidency, and that goes to the core of whether or not you should be president. It sounds like where Nadler is going is, the underlying crime, the hush payment, may not be grave enough by itself to sustain an impeachment, but, as I mentioned, there was stuff in the filings on Friday that suggests Mueller is going to charge very similar crimes.
Just as one example, one of the things that Paul Manafort lied about is that he was getting payments through a super PAC from Tom Barrack, who is one of Trump’s biggest donors, who’s the guy who hired Paul Manafort in the first place. So he was getting payments through a super PAC that themselves are probably not legal. And it raises questions — the question we’ve always asked about Paul Manafort is: He was dead broke for the entire time he was working for Trump, so who was paying him? And if he was being paid through this super PAC, for example, then it’s another example of, as I said before, the conspiracy to defraud the United States. And what I expect is what we see in New York. We’re going to see parallel kinds of charges but tied to hiding the role of the Russians, in Mueller’s investigations. And those, I think, together, will add up.
And then the other thing that I think is really important that people have just forgotten through this entire process — we keep talking about whether you can indict a sitting president. You know, there’s still a debate about that, but, really critically, you can indict a corporation. You can indict Trump Organization. And that filing in New York and, frankly, the Cohen filing from Mueller, as well, both make it quite clear that the Trump Organization was involved in this fraudulent activity. And so, I think we should start talking a lot more about how Trump is going to react when his eponymous corporation starts getting charged in crimes, as well, because, you know, that’s where his ego is invested, that’s where his alleged billions are invested. And that, too, I think, makes him vulnerable in a way other presidents have not been.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the issue is, I mean, you’ve got the hush money payments for alleged affairs that Trump was trying to keep secret. But then, on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which is supposedly what this inquiry was all about, explain what you think is most significant about what both Michael Cohen has said and what Manafort has said, why, for example, building a Trump Tower in Moscow weighs in here and more. And what were you most surprised by, Marcy?
MARCY WHEELER: It wasn’t surprising. We’re still getting more details about Cohen’s version of the Trump Tower deal. But the language that prosecutors — that the Mueller’s prosecutors here used in his sentencing memo was really stark, because it laid out that that Trump Tower deal could have meant hundreds of millions of dollars for Trump. That Trump Tower deal, they make explicit, probably required the involvement of the Russian government. That Trump Tower deal was being arranged at the same time as the June 9th meeting we’ve heard about over and over again. So, there’s that paragraph in the Cohen memo which lays out the stakes of what it meant for Trump, for Cohen, for Don Jr. to be open to a meeting with Vladimir Putin and to be open to a meeting from Russians offering election-year assistance on behalf of the Russian government. So, the language that Rob Goldstone, who’s the music promoter who set up that June 9th meeting — he talks about a package of assistance from the Russian government.
And the Cohen memo makes it very clear now what that would have meant to Don Jr. To Don Jr., it would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars if Vladimir Putin would buy off on this Trump Tower deal. And so, it really changes his willingness. Most of the witnesses in that meeting say that at the end of that meeting he said, “Sure, we’ll get rid of — you know, we’ll revisit these Magnitsky sanctions when and if my dad wins.” Changes the entire meaning of that meeting. And I think it makes it a lot clearer what the quid pro quo there was involved. And it was about money, and, again, money for the Trump Organization. So, it goes to that corporate entity, that can also be charged, in addition to Don Jr., who keeps talking about his expectation he’ll be indicted.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Marcy Wheeler, what do you expect — what steps do you expect the Trump administration to now take? I mean, the White House has essentially entirely dismissed what happened on Friday, saying that nothing new was revealed and nothing damaging to the president.
MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s not clear they can do much. Matt Whitaker has not been able to prevent anything from happening. It’s not yet clear whether he’s cleared his ethics review. So it’s not yet clear whether he actually is in direct control of the Mueller investigation yet, because he should be recused. He should be ethically not permitted to be in charge of this. But the thing is that, I mean, you know, the Mueller — the Manafort discussion about the lies he told, that’s going to go forward regardless of what Whitaker said. Again, Don Jr. sounds like he recognizes more and more that Mueller has the goods, not just that he lied, but that he lied for a reason. He lied to hide this larger deal that was going on. And it sounds like Michael Cohen has provided a great deal of evidence in support of that. That’s why the Mueller prosecutor said that he actually should get some consideration in his sentencing.
So, I’m not sure what Trump can do to interrupt it. I mean, he wants to bring in William Barr as attorney general, but he, too, is going to have ethical problems, because he interviewed to be on Trump’s defense team. So, it’s not even clear, if he does get confirmed quickly, that he’ll be able to help Trump in the way that he helped Poppy Bush years ago in killing the Iran-Contra crisis. So, we’ll see. But I’m not — I think it may be beyond Trump’s ability to really undercut this investigation anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, we want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties, runs the website EmptyWheel.net. We’ll link to your latest piece, “The Quid Pro Quo Was Even Tighter Than I Imagined.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the streets of Katowice, Poland, where thousands marched this weekend. And we go underground in a coal mine here in Poland. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Music from today’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, where Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Kurd from Iraq, were both awarded the prize for their fight against sexual violence.