Michael Cohen once believed that he would lead Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. When that didn’t come to pass, he told friends he might become White House chief of staff. That didn’t happen either, but still he told a reporter he’d “take a bullet for the president.”
Instead, Trump’s longtime lawyer stood in a federal courtroom in Manhattan on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and, in the parlance of the president, ratted him out.
Wearing a dark suit and a gold tie, Cohen said under oath that he was immune from any outside influences, including drugs and alcohol. He’d had a glass of 12-year Glenlivet Scotch on the rocks the night before, he told the judge, but that was an extenuating circumstance given what he was about to do.
Then, one of the most loyal of the president’s loyalists entered into a guilty plea with the U.S government on eight felonies. He admitted that he had arranged payments to keep a porn star and a former Playboy model quiet during the 2016 election about alleged affairs with Trump years earlier, coordinating his efforts with a tabloid magazine and filing fake invoices with the Trump Organization to get reimbursed. He did all this, he testified, “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” — Trump.
That statement, along with an array of other guilty pleas to charges including skimming money from New York City taxi medallions, obtaining a bank loan on false pretenses and failing to report income on his taxes over half a decade ensured that Cohen will likely spend some time in a federal prison.
“I think Cohen will be going to jail for a long time no matter what the judge does,” said David L. Axelrod, a former federal prosecutor and current litigator of white-collar crime. “I think the bigger fallout from this is that — for the first time — we’ve seen, in court, evidence strongly linking the president to criminal acts.”
Cohen’s bad day also brought all of the president’s legal and political headaches together into a single supernova.
The Cohen scandal truly has it all. There’s Trump’s personal problems with women — not just limited to alleged affairs with porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, but also those who have accused him of sexual misconduct. There’s the blurring of the lines between his business, his campaign and his presidency, personified by Cohen, the former fixer who worked on behalf of all three, sometimes simultaneously. And there’s the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who first referred the Cohen matter to federal prosecutors.
“I feel bad for Michael,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide. “He wasn’t given a job at the White House and now he ends up getting three to five years.”
And like the ring of an exploding star, the reverberations will only continue. Daniels’ lawyer, Trump antagonist Michael Avenatti, tweeted that he believes the plea will help a civil case she is bringing, potentially forcing Trump to testify about what he knew. “Buckle Up Buttercup,” he tweeted at Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “You and your client completely misplayed this.”
But it’s not just Trump who has to deal with the potential legal ramifications, it’s also his closely held business, which reimbursed Cohen and is unlikely to remain above the legal fray.
According to law enforcement, Cohen was reimbursed for his payment to Daniels through the Trump Organization, doled out in monthly installments of $35,000. The business allegedly tracked the invoices detailing the installments as legal services, even though Cohen was not actually providing any. Experts say that if Trump had paid Cohen himself, out of his own personal bank account, it would not have raised these issues. But since it was through his business, these payments could ultimately be found to violate the prohibition on corporations donating to political campaigns.
“At the end of the day after these reimbursements take place, not only did Michael Cohen make his unusually large $130,000 campaign to the Trump campaign but the Trump Organization, by reimbursing Michael Cohen, made an illegal $130,000 corporate contribution to the Trump campaign,” said Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, the non-partisan organization that filed complaints with the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission earlier this year regarding the campaign’s payments to Daniels and American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer.
“If [Trump] had reimbursed Michael Cohen out of his own personal bank account instead of out of the Trump Organization’s bank account there would be no additional contribution violation. It’s because he chose to use the corporate coffers to reimburse Cohen that you get this additional violation of federal law by the Trump Organization and by extension Donald Trump himself.”
Both events also cemented corruption as a theme that Democrats can use to hammer Republican incumbents in Congress during the midterm elections just 11 weeks away, a dynamic party leaders wasted no time seizing. “Today’s guilty verdicts against President Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the guilty plea of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, are further evidence of the rampant corruption and criminality at the heart of Trump’s inner circle,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement issued less than two hours after Cohen’s court proceedings had ended and Manafort’s verdict had been announced. “The Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans’ unprecedented culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence is characteristic of the dysfunctional political system in Washington.”
But Democrats soon had even more fodder that extended beyond Trump’s inner circle. Not long after Manafort and Cohen’s court dealings, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and his wife were indicted on federal charges of misusing campaign funds for everything from trips to Italy to school tuition, dental work and theater tickets.
Hunter was the second sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump during the 2016 election. The first, Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York, was recently indicted on charges that he misused his position on a biotech firm to help his family avoid more than $768,000 in stock losses through insider trading.
“The charges against Congressman Hunter are further evidence of the rampant culture of corruption among Republicans in Washington today,” Pelosi said in yet another statement.
To be fair, the two Republican lawmakers’ legal problems are not Trump’s doing, but the accusations they are facing are similar enough to Cohen and Manafort’s crimes that voters may end up linking them. Adding to the party’s problems is the fact that Cohen was previously the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, where he worked alongside longtime GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who is now facing his own investigation on allegations of selling influence, (Cohen also brokered a similar non-disclosure agreement for Broidy over an alleged affair with former Playboy model Shera Bechard), and Steve Wynn, the onetime chairman who resigned amidst numerous allegations of sexual misconduct from dozens of people that stemmed decades. The RNC was silent on Tuesday and did not immediately respond to request for comment.
With impeccable timing, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts chose Tuesday to roll out a broad anti-corruption bill that takes direct aim at several of Trump’s scandals and ethics questions, such as a requirement for federal officeholders to release their tax returns. The bill is going nowhere in the current Congress, or during Trump’s presidency, for that matter, but coming from a likely 2020 candidate it showed how the party plans to use ethics as a cudgel against Trump in much the same way he used it against them in 2016.
Democrats for the moment enjoy a distinct advantage over Republicans in generic head-to-head ballots nationwide. But strategists close to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi last week sent a memo to Democratic candidates with a proposed message: Run as a check on Trump’s agenda. By adding that layer to messaging, these strategists found in their research, the Democratic candidates saw a 12-point bump. Among independent and non-aligned voters, the rhetoric was worth 14 percentage points.
Though the Senate is slightly safer for Republicans, due to a baked-in advantage on the states that happen to be holding elections this year, losing the House to Democrats could spell trouble for the president and his party.
While most Democrats are careful not to use the I-word — ”impeachment” — when making their pitch to voters, they couch the value of balanced government with another I-word — “investigations.” And that’s where Cohen’s rough day in court could end up causing further trouble for Trump. If the ongoing air of scandal drags down Republicans in Congress, Democrats could find themselves chairing committees next January with broad oversight powers to dig up even more dirt on the president and his associates.
– With Alana Abramson and Katie Reilly in New York and Philip Elliott and Abby Vesoulis in Washington