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Michael Cohen's courtroom confession: I broke the law, and Trump told me to do it

Michael Cohen, former lawyer to President Donald Trump,

Michael Cohen, former lawyer to President Donald Trump, departs following his appearance in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday. Credit: AP / Kevin Hagen

Trump a partner in crime?

The question of whether Donald Trump committed criminal acts of collusion to win election as president is not just about Russia, as Michael Cohen's guilty plea in Manhattan federal court demonstrated on Tuesday.

Cohen confessed he violated campaign finance laws by arranging the six-figure payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the campaign's final weeks to buy silence on their stories about sex flings with Trump. The payments were made for "the purpose of influencing” an election, and Cohen said did so “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate.”

Cohen didn't give the candidate's name in court, but he didn't have to. His lawyer, Lanny Davis, made that clear, as well why it's an explosive new turn in the president's multiple legal dramas.

"If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?" Davis tweeted. If that's the case, tweeted Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, "the only thing limiting" the Justice Department from prosecuting Trump is its standing guideline that "a sitting president cannot be indicted." And Justice could reconsider the rule because it's not a "settled legal matter," Nadler said.

If Justice stands aside, that leaves the impeachment option — a stronger possibility if Democrats take back the House in November.

For Trump, the worst could be yet to come from Cohen, his no-longer-loyal former fixer with inside knowledge of Trump dealings that could be of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller. Cohen's plea deal as described in court didn't include an agreement to cooperate with ongoing investigations, but it didn't preclude it either. Davis said Cohen's decision "is Michael fulfilling his promise made . . . to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump."

Cohen, who also pleaded guilty to avoiding taxes on more than $4 million in income, and lying to a bank to get a loan, faces a recommended sentence of 46 to 63 months in prison. For more, see John Riley's story for Newsday.

Giuliani's spin

Fresh from his "truth isn't truth" tour, Trump's lead lawyer Rudy Giuliani issued this comment on Cohen's guilty plea:

“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.”

That may be technically true only in that Trump hasn't been charged for the acts that Cohen detailed and prosecutors accepted in his plea. It is also true that Trump denied in April that he knew about the Cohen payoff to Daniels, only to have Giuliani admit a month later that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the “perfectly legal” payment that was "no campaign finance violation." Cohen last month released a secretly recorded tape of a discussion he had with Trump about the hush money for McDougal.

The witching hour

Cohen entered his plea at 4:21 p.m. Two minutes later, in Alexandria, Virginia, a jury found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of eight of 18 counts of financial crimes in an indictment brought by Mueller.

 Manafort was convicted of five counts of filing false tax returns on tens of millions of dollars in Ukrainian political consulting income. He was also convicted of failing to report a foreign bank account and of two bank fraud charges that accused him of lying to banks to obtain millions of dollars in loans after his income dried up.

Trump, arriving in West Virginia for a rally, had nothing to say about Cohen but decried the case against Manafort as part of Mueller's "witch hunt." 

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort.” said Trump — who was quick to add that the verdict "has nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with Russia collusion."

Does Manafort have a flip side?

Manafort's conviction Tuesday could send him to prison for seven to 10 years under federal sentencing guidelines, and he's still facing a second trial on charges including money laundering.

That would seem to mean more pressure on him to make a deal to cooperate with Mueller. His business was built on Russia connections and pro-Russia clients, and Mueller would like to hear about any Russia connections he could make to Trump and his 2016 campaign.

Could Trump thwart Mueller by pardoning Manafort or Cohen? Some legal experts think that might not work because they would no longer have constitutional immunity against self-incrimination and therefore could be forced to testify. Additionally, they could face state charges beyond the reach of a presidential pardon. But other experts say the threat of state prosecutions could keep their Fifth Amendment rights intact.

It's a gag to him

If it wasn't clear yet that Trump sees the weapon of revoking security clearances as a way to punish former officials who speak out against him, the president connected the dots in new tweets.

On Monday night, Trump caught up to video of a heated argument over Trump's actions on clearances between a regular CNN commentator, Phil Mudd, a former top counterterrorism official for the CIA and FBI, and a defender of the president, Paris Dennard. After Trump's Fox News buddy Sean Hannity replayed the clip Monday night, Trump tweeted that Mudd was "totally unglued and weird" and "is in no mental condition to have such a Clearance. Should be REVOKED?"

On Tuesday, Trump took note that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has suggested that former CIA Director John Brennan, while not deserving to have his clearance lifted, was too strident in his attacks on Trump. "Maybe Clapper is being nice to me" to save his clearance, which Trump has under "review," the president tweeted.

Seeing another pattern

Steven L. Hall, a retired 30-year CIA veteran who ran the agency's Russia operations, wrote in The Washington Post that Trump's targets have something in common: They are the "critics who have the best understanding of his relationship with Russia."

Trump's threats carry a "chilling effect," Hall said. Former officers worry that open dissent could put not just clearances but retirement benefits in jeopardy. But Hall said he shares Brennan's conclusion that whether it was criminal or not, Trump's team colluded with Russia. 

"This is why an unprecedented number of former intelligence and law enforcement officers — including myself — are ignoring the discomfort of breaking with our culture and tradition of silence and speaking out . . . Even when faced with threats from the White House," Hall wrote. More than 175 have signed a protest letter.

Something in the air

The Trump administration moved to dramatically scale back Obama-era restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants even as it acknowledged that could lead to more premature deaths and serious illnesses.

Under EPA estimates, the Obama rules would have meant avoiding 1,500 to 3,600 premature deaths a year by 2030. The laxer Trump rules would only avoid 300 to 1,500. Additionally, the Trump plan also project tens of thousands of additional major asthma attacks and hundreds more heart attacks compared with the Obama plan.

Trump has promoted looser regulation to win support in coal country, such as West Virginia, where he held a rally Tuesday night. States downwind from coal-fired plants threatened to sue to challenge the move.

What else is happening:

  • Mueller is seeking to postpone the sentencing hearing for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, from Aug. 24 to Sept. 17. Flynn's lawyers agreed with the move. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, has been cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
  • A Bronx judge turned down a bid by lawyers for Trump and his Trump Tower security force to throw out a suit by human rights activists. The group says it was assaulted by then-candidate Trump’s guards in 2015 while peacefully protesting against his remarks about Mexican immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • A Trump ally, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and his wife have been charged along with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses such as family trips to Italy and Hawaii. Duncan was the second sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump. The first, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), was indicted earlier this month on insider trader charges.
  • Trump pushed back at a report in The New Yorker that he considered cutting off former President Barack Obama from intelligence briefings last year. That was “never discussed or thought of," Trump tweeted.
  • Peter Brimelow, the publisher of a website that serves as a platform for white nationalism, was a guest last weekend at the home of President Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, The Washington Post reported. The day before, the White House fired a speechwriter who had spoken alongside Brimelow on a 2016 panel.
  • The White House announced that a former Nazi death camp guard was arrested at his Queens home on Monday and deported to Germany, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez. Past efforts to carry out a 2004 deportation order against 95-year-old Jakiw Palij had been frustrated because no country would take him.
  • Prompted by an item on "Fox & Friends," Trump tweeted an accusation that Mayor Bill de Blasio "stole" from him a slogan — “Promises Made, Promises Kept” — that he used Monday at a Bronx school groundbreaking event. But it's no Trump original either. It's been repeatedly used by politicians since at least 1968, when it showed up at the Democratic National Convention.
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, may have told other senators Tuesday that the court's rulings upholding abortion rights are “settled law,” but he refused to say if those cases had been correctly decided, Newsday's Tom Brune reports.


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