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Explainer: Why Trump is in the firing line after two key allies found guilty

Former lawyer Michael Cohen has implicated the US President in alleged “hush money” payments.

Donald Trump speaking at a rally yesterday
Donald Trump speaking at a rally yesterday
Image: Craig Hudson/Gazette-Mail/PA Images

DONALD TRUMP STOOD accused of conspiring to commit campaign finance fraud and two of his closest aides faced jail time yesterday, after court proceedings delivered a legal and political one-two punch to his embattled presidency.

In a drama that played out simultaneously across two US cities, a court found one former aide guilty of eight charges – and the other pleaded guilty to another eight – stemming from the federal investigation into the 2016 presidential election.

In New York, Trump’s longtime fixer, the lawyer Michael Cohen, admitted to charges that included making illegal campaign contributions.

Separately, former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty on a number of fraud charges, in the first case that special investigator Robert Mueller has sent to trial.

Cohen detailed how he made pre-election hush payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both claim to have had affairs with Trump.

In a sensational twist, Cohen also pointed to the president – or “individual 1″ as a co-conspirator – alleging that he acted “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” in making those payments.

“I participated in this conduct with the purpose of influencing the election,” a visibly crestfallen Cohen told the judge, his voice trembling at times as he addressed the packed courtroom.

That admission put Trump himself in legal jeopardy. And it raised the prospect that a once-trusted lieutenant is ready to spill secrets, gathered over decades, in exchange for a reduced sentence.

In a statement to US media, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said, “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen”.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis explained his client’s about face after years spent vowing to “take a bullet” for Trump.

“This is Michael fulfilling his promise… to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump,” said Davis.

“Today, he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election,” the lawyer continued.

“Witch hunt”

While the Cohen drama was unfolding in New York, a jury in Virginia found Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty on eight counts, including bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to declare foreign bank accounts.

Trump expressed regret, calling Manafort “a good man”.

“I feel very sad about that,” Trump told reporters as he arrived in West Virginia for a rally, claiming the conviction was part of a “witch hunt” after the 2016 election.

It’s a very sad thing that happened, this has nothing to do with Russian collusion.

Trump also sought to distance himself from Manafort – who was instrumental in the 72-year-old securing the 2016 Republican nomination.

“He worked for many, many people,” said Trump, citing campaigns for former president Ronald Reagan and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole.

At the rally Trump made oblique but impassioned comments about Manafort and the Mueller probe.

“Where is the collusion?” he asked the crowd. “They are still looking for collusion, where is the collusion? Find some collusion. We want to find the collusion.”

Mueller has an uphill battle to prove allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election, and that Trump has sought to obstruct his investigation.

The Manafort case, the first one the Mueller team has sent to trial, saw a jury find the former Trump campaign chairman guilty on eight counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and financial account reporting violations.

This success for Mueller boosts his own investigation, which Trump has repeatedly criticised.

Biggest problems

It is Cohen’s decision to enter a plea deal that may pose the most problems for Trump.

While it is US legal tradition that the president cannot be tried, the allegation, if proven, will only increase calls for his impeachment as congressional elections in November come nearer.

“I think impeachment is now squarely going to define the midterms,” Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, told The New York Times. “It’s inescapable now that Democrats can legitimately raise that issue.”

Currently, the Republican majority in Congress prevents the possibility of impeachment – unless his own party turns on Trump.

Questioned by a federal judge in Manhattan, Cohen indicated he had paid sums of $130,000 and $150,000 each to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

Cohen said he made the payments “at the request of a candidate” to silence “information that would be prejudicial to the candidate and the campaign.”

In addition to two counts of violating campaign finance laws, Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax fraud and one of bank fraud during the hearing before US District Judge William Pauley.

The federal judge informed the 51-year-old Cohen that he faced a maximum of 65 years of imprisonment, with his sentence set to be handed down on December 12.

The US president had spent much of the day cooped up at the White House, as rainstorms raged outside and the two high-profile legal cases with profound implications for his presidency reached their coda.

At a courthouse close to Washington, jurors spent four days deliberating on the 18 charges against Manafort.

While the jury was unable to reach a verdict on 10 counts, prompting the judge to declare a partial mistrial, Manafort was found guilty on the eight remaining charges.

These included five counts of filing false income tax returns, two counts of bank fraud and one of failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts.

Each of the bank fraud counts carries a significant maximum sentence and the 69-year-old could theoretically live out the remainder of his years in prison – though a legal expert contacted by AFP predicted his sentence would in reality last less than a decade.

“Manafort’s conviction shows that Mueller’s investigation is far from a witch hunt,” said Democratic congressman Adam Schiff.

“It also shows his campaign and administration were rife with people with a history of unscrupulous business dealings and concerning ties to overseas interests.”

This is certainly a troubling time for Trump, but the US President is not quite cornered yet.

- © AFP, 2018

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