Double court blow for Trump raises fresh questions over US president

Mr Trump’s former personal ‘fixer’ Michael Cohen has said he helped arrange the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Donald Trump (AP)
Donald Trump (AP)

US president Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer has pleaded guilty to election campaign finance violations while his former campaign chairman was convicted of financial fraud – raising questions about the president’s own potential legal jeopardy.

Most damaging to Mr Trump were statements by his long-standing lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, who admitted that he and Mr Trump had arranged the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a former Playboy model in order to influence the 2016 election.

Mr Trump has tried to distance himself from the matter, ignoring the back-to-back blows at a campaign rally in West Virginia and declaring that his administration is still “winning”.

However, David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said: “It’s going to be hard for the president to try to discredit all this. It’s circling him.”

Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of financial crimes at nearly the same moment that Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of offences, including campaign finance violations that the lawyer said he carried out in co-ordination with Mr Trump.

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of charges at a court in New York AP/Craig Ruttle)

With two men who played prominent roles on the president’s campaign convicted of multiple criminal charges, investigations are circling ever closer to Mr Trump.

Despite this, the US leader spent more than an hour at a rally in Charleston on Tuesday night painting a rosy view of his accomplishments in office, ticking off developments on trade, taxes, North Korea and even his plans for a Space Force.

“What we’re doing is winning,” Mr Trump told his cheering supporters.

And he demanded: “Where is the collusion?”

The president underlined the fact that Manafort’s crimes had occurred before he became involved with the Trump campaign. “You know they’re still looking for collusion.”

The president did say he felt “badly” for both men, but he largely ignored Cohen’s guilty pleas to eight felonies.

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Manafort was convicted in Virginia on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential obstruction of justice.

Cohen pleaded guilty in New York, saying he and Mr Trump had arranged the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a former Playboy model to influence the election.

Mr Trump has shown an uncanny ability to shake off a relentless stream of accusations and jolting statements that provoked outrage.

His loyal base of supporters has stayed with him despite his effort to blame “both sides” for the deadly violence between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as his refusal to side with the US intelligence services over Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, among other controversies.

Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight financial crimes (Dana Verkouteren/AP)

The crowd in West Virginia loudly chanted Mr Trump’s campaign slogans such as “Drain the swamp!” and “Lock her up!” despite the fresh corruption convictions and looming prison sentences for his former advisers.

Manafort’s conviction served as a vindication of Mr Mueller’s work as investigators continue to probe potential misdeeds by the president and those in his orbit. Mr Mueller’s team also had referred evidence in the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in New York.

Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani sought to cast the blame solely on Cohen, saying: “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen.”

Mr Trump’s legal team has also been engaged in negotiations with Mr Mueller’s representatives about a potential sit-down with the president, but has objected to the scope of the questions.

Cohen admitted arranging to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels (AP)

In a separate courtroom on Tuesday, prosecutors and defence attorneys for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn agreed to postpone his sentencing after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian official, in a sign his co-operation is still needed in the Mueller probe.

The explosive legal developments come as the White House refocuses itself around the upcoming mid-term elections, and as Trump allies like Steve Bannon seek to frame the election as a referendum on the potential impeachment of the president.

Insiders have long argued that the president’s fate in such a scenario would ultimately be more a matter of politics than law.

Regarding Cohen’s pleas, Mr Bannon argued that it “takes away the argument from those who are telling the president it’s not that bad if he loses the House. This now becomes more than ever a national election on the issue of impeachment”.

The explosive double blow for the US president has raised questions over his own legal standing (AP)

Insiders in the Trump camp reasserted that it is the White House position that a president cannot be indicted, referring to a 2000 opinion of the US justice department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice and guidance to executive branch agencies.

Mr Trump’s lawyers have said Mr Mueller plans to adhere to that guidance, though Mr Mueller’s office has never independently confirmed that. There would presumably be no bar against charging a president after he or she departs the White House.

Michael Avenatti, a lawyer pressing a civil case against the president for Ms Daniels, who has said she had sex with the president, tweeted on Tuesday that the resolution of the criminal case against Cohen “should also permit us to proceed with an expedited deposition of Trump under oath about what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it”.

The Supreme Court in 1997, ruling in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, held that a sitting president could be made to answer questions as part of a lawsuit. That ruling did not directly address whether a president could be subpoenaed to testify in a criminal investigation.

Press Association

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