The president of the United States is in grave legal peril. He has run out of lies and luck, and things are only going to get worse for him as missing Russia scandal puzzle pieces get filled in and we inch closer to the full story.
In a day of extraordinarily portentous Russia scandal developments, prosecutors said in legal memorandums pertaining to Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, that the president committed felonies in making hush money payments to two women with whom he had affairs, had hitherto unknown contacts with Russia through Cohen beginning in 2015 and continuing as recently as this year, and that Manafort lied about being in touch with Trump administration officials and a probable Russian spy.
Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York (SDNY) — in other words, Trump’s own Justice Department — argued in a scathing sentencing memorandum to District Judge William H. Pauley III made public late Friday afternoon that Cohen should receive “a substantial term of imprisonment,” at least 51 months under sentencing guidelines, for various finance-related crimes and most significantly his role in the hush money payments — each one a felony — approved by Trump made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to keep them from going public as the 2016 election approached.
Cohen, 52, has asked for a sentence of no prison time when he is sentenced next week, but SDNY prosecutors said that while he did eventually provide useful information, he refused to disclose everything he knew about the 2016 campaign.
“After cheating the IRS for years, lying to banks and to Congress, and seeking to criminally influence the Presidential election, Cohen’s decision to plead guilty — rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes — does not make him a hero,” SDNY prosecutors wrote.
The prosecutors said Cohen’s actions — and by inference Trump’s — “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency” as [Cohen] “sought to influence the election from the shadows.”
In a separate filing to Judge Pauley on Cohen also made public late Friday afternoon, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office took a less aggressive tack, saying that Cohen took “significant steps” to help his own investigation — as opposed to the SDNY investigation into Cohen’s financial crimes and role in the hush payments — after accepting a plea agreement and has accepted responsibility for his crimes. Mueller argued that any sentence Cohen serves run concurrently.
Most intriguingly, Mueller said Cohen’s cooperation included information on a contact he received in November 2015 from a “Russian national” seeking “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level,” and offered to set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
His cooperation also included “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact” with Trump Organization executives during the campaign, as well as “relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017–2018 time period.” Can you say presidential pardons?
The SDNY filing referred to Cohen’s interactions with “Individual No. 1” — who is candidate Trump — as had two legal memorandums filed last week pertaining to the Trump Tower Moscow hotel deal and WikiLeaks email dumps. Both of those filings intimated that Trump may have participated in crimes, but the SDNY filing said flat out that Trump had committed two felonies, which alone is impeachment fodder.
In a third filing, this one pertaining to Manafort, Mueller told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in a memorandum made public early Friday evening that he had told “multiple discernible lies” regarding five major issues. These included contacts Manafort had with at least two unidentified Trump administration officials following his indictment, as well as with Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked for Manafort for many years and long has been suspected of being an intelligence agent with GRU ties and cut-out between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
In general, however, Mueller continued to reveal little specific about what he has learned about Manafort from both before and after he reneged on a plea deal. Part of the Manafort document was filed under seal and key elements were redacted.
Manafort, 69, was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges in Virginia in August and already faced eight to 10 years in prison. He pleaded guilty in September to additional charges, and as part of the plea agreed to “fully cooperate” with the special prosecutor.
In an inexplicable tweet after the Cohen filings, Trump declared “Totally clears the president. Thank you.” And then on Saturday morning he tweeted, “AFTER TWO YEARS AND MILLIONS OF PAGES OF DOCUMENTS (and a cost of over $30,000,000), NO COLLUSION!”
Cohen and short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn have emerged as the biggest threats to Trump’s presidency. On Tuesday, Mueller asked a judge to impose little or no prison time on Flynn, saying that he had provided substantial assistance in the Russia investigation.
Trump can pardon Cohen, Manafort and Flynn, but that seems highly unlikely with Cohen and Flynn, while for Manafort a $46 million asset forfeiture process is well underway and pretty much irreversable. In any event, many of the charges against Cohen and Manafort can be reinstated in state courts, which are beyond the reach of the presidential pardon pen.
Mueller, and now the president’s own Justice Department, have assembled an enormous amount of information to fill in those scandal puzzle pieces. These include the almost constant contacts Trump and his intermediaries had with Russians of various stripes, the quid pro quos between Trump Tower and the Kremlin, using the presidency as a profit center for his businesses, the relentless efforts to obstruct Mueller and other investigators, and the multitude of lies Trump and those intermediaries have told in trying to cover their tracks.
The president of the United States is indeed in grave legal peril, and no one — not Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, AG-nominee William Barr or the Vichy Republicans in Congress — can save him.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 7, 2018 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.