Donald Trump, ‘Individual 1,’ downplays own legal peril after Michael Cohen guilty plea
President Trump downplayed any legal jeopardy for himself Wednesday from the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, saying the “crime” his former attorney committed by paying hush money to two women who allege affairs with Mr. Trump was not a violation of campaign finance law.
Some prominent legal analysts agree with Mr. Trump, who is identified in the government’s criminal complaint against Cohen as “Individual 1.”
Mr. Trump asserted that the actions at the heart of the campaign finance case are lawful: paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to prevent them from going public with their stories before Election Day 2016.
″[The payments] didn’t come out of the campaign,” Mr. Trump told “Fox Friends” in an interview to air Thursday. “They came from me. And I tweeted about it. It’s not even a campaign violation.”
Asked whether he knew Cohen had paid the women, the president said, “Later on I knew, later on.”
As White House allies attacked Cohen’s credibility, Democrats called for his sworn testimony about any crimes the president might have committed.
Democrats also seized on the convictions of Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as an argument to delay the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. The White House called the effort desperate and said the confirmation hearing will proceed as scheduled next month.
In New York state, meanwhile, investigators issued a subpoena to Cohen as part of their criminal investigation into whether the Trump Foundation or Mr. Trump broke state law or lied about their tax liability. The subpoena was issued after Cohen’s attorney said he has information that would be of interest to prosecutors at the state and federal levels.
Mr. Trump tweeted about his former attorney and fixer: “Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. Mr. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!”
He was referring to a $375,000 fine imposed on Mr. Obama’s campaign by the Federal Election Commission in 2013 for failing to disclose millions of dollars in contributions from campaign donors in 2008.
Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan to eight felonies, including bank fraud, tax evasion and the campaign finance violations that stemmed from the payments to the two women. He said he made the payments totaling $280,000 at the direction of a candidate, referring to Mr. Trump, and that the actions were illegal.
The prosecution’s complaint states that individual contributions to a presidential candidate are limited to $2,700 per election cycle and that presidential candidates and their committees are “prohibited from accepting contributions from individuals in excess of this limit.”
Some senior congressional Democrats said Cohen’s guilty plea shows that Mr. Trump also broke the law.
“In his plea agreement, Cohen said President Trump directed hush money payments of campaign dollars to women the president slept with in an effort to influence the 2016 campaign,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “If true, this means the president also violated campaign finance laws. As investigations delve deeper into President Trump’s world, we’re seeing just how rotten his campaign truly was.”
But federal election law allows candidates to contribute unlimited amounts to their own campaigns. Some legal analysts said that was what Mr. Trump did.
“If [Mr. Trump] gave $1 million to two women as hush money, there would be no crime,” said Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz. “If he directed his lawyer to do it and he would compensate the lawyer, he’s committed no crime.”
He said a crime would have been committed only if Cohen paid the women to keep quiet on his own and wasn’t reimbursed by Mr. Trump.
“That would be a campaign contribution,” he said on MSNBC. “It’s a Catch-22 for the prosecution. The law is convoluted. The president is entitled to pay hush money to anyone he wants during the campaign. There are no restrictions on what a candidate can contribute to his own campaign.”
Said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn’t mean that that implicates the president on anything. He did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him in this.”
One prominent Republican said the dual convictions of Manafort and Cohen made a “shocking day” for those close to the White House and that Mr. Trump is “really upset” with Cohen.
“He thinks Cohen did him dirty, and that’s an accurate portrayal,” the Republican said.
Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said in multiple interviews Wednesday that Cohen is eager to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller.
“There is no dispute that Donald Trump committed a crime,” Mr. Davis said on MSNBC. “Donald Trump is guilty of a crime, and a president of the United States being guilty of a crime is far beyond what has been classically called impeachable offenses.”
Mr. Davis, a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, said Cohen would not accept a presidential pardon if one is granted.
“Under no circumstances would he accept a pardon from Mr. Trump,” Mr. Davis told NPR. The president “not only directed a crime; he’s part of a cover-up.”
Asked whether the president is worried that Cohen will talk to Mr. Mueller, Mrs. Sanders replied, “I don’t think the president’s concerned at all. He knows that he did nothing wrong and that there was no collusion, and we’re going to continue focusing on the things that Americans care about and that we can have an impact on.”
Mr. Davis created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the embattled lawyer’s legal fees. The “truth fund” hit $50,000 in less than 24 hours on Wednesday, toward a goal of $500,000.
“He and his family are suffering,” Mr. Davis said. “Michael is asking for anybody interested in helping him to go to this website.”
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp questioned whether the hush-money payments should even be considered a campaign issue. He said wealthy, high-profile people sometimes deal with similar dilemmas to prevent unflattering, false publicity. Mr. Trump has denied the affairs.
“I don’t think a rich and famous person stops being a rich and famous person when they decide to run for office,” Mr. Schlapp said.
Mr. Trump tweeted with regretful sarcasm Wednesday about his longtime former attorney after Cohen implicated him.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” the president tweeted.
In April, the president called Cohen “a fine person with a wonderful family.” That was shortly after the FBI raided Cohen’s office and home, seizing phones, computers and millions of pages of documents pertaining to his work for the Trump Organization and his lucrative taxi leasing business.
During Cohen’s guilty plea hearing Tuesday, federal prosecutors said their efforts to prove the campaign finance violations in a trial would have relied on evidence seized in the raid, including audio recordings made by Mr. Cohen and “text messages, messages sent over encrypted applications, phone records, and emails.” They also intended to introduce as evidence records from the Trump Organization.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Chairman Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, on Wednesday to hold a hearing with Cohen under oath.
“These are extremely serious crimes that implicate the fundamental underpinnings of our democracy, and they warrant robust and credible oversight by Congress as an independent constitutional check on the executive branch,” Mr. Cummings wrote in a letter.
Court records show that Cohen submitted invoices to the Trump Organization in 2017 to be reimbursed for the $130,000 payment to Miss Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. He included a request for $50,000 for “tech services” in his bill to Mr. Trump’s company.
Prosecutors said executives at the Trump Organization then “grossed up” for tax purposes Cohen’s requested reimbursement of $180,000 to $360,000, and then added a bonus of $60,000 so that Cohen would be paid $420,000 in total.
“Executives of the Company also determined that the $420,000 would be paid to Cohen in monthly amounts of $35,000 over the course of twelve months, and that Cohen should send invoices for these payments,” the complaint said.
Mr. Schlapp said “the politics are bad” for the White House momentarily but that he doesn’t see permanent political harm in the midterm elections from this week’s developments.
“I think you’re going to have the camps dug in,” he said. “One camp thinks the president should be impeached, and the other camp thinks there is a coup going on to knock out a president who was elected.”
He added, “It’s hard for the president to know that his lawyer taped him. Michael Cohen is going to say anything in order to go to prison for a shorter period of time or to avoid prison. Every day you’re not on offense in the White House, it’s annoying and it’s jarring. This is clearly defense. But it’s becoming clear the special counsel’s report is going to be about people around the president doing things they shouldn’t have done. That’s a lot different than some expansive data about interference with Russia.”
⦁ Gabriella Muoz contributed to this report.