US President Donald Trump on Tuesday stood accused of conspiring to commit campaign finance fraud and two of his former closest aides faced jail time, 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, while the other pleaded guilty to another eight charges stemming from a federal investigation into the 2016 US presidential election.
In New York City, Trump’s long-time fixer and attorney Michael Cohen admitted to charges that included making illegal campaign contributions.
Cohen detailed how he made pre-election hush payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Both have claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
However, in a sensational twist, Cohen also pointed to the president — or “individual 1” — as a coconspirator, 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 raised the prospect that a once-trusted lieutenant is ready to spill secrets, gathered over decades, in exchange for a reduced sentence.
“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen,” Trump’s lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, said in a statement to US media.
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,” Davis said. “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.”
While the Cohen drama was unfolding in New York, a jury in Virginia found Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, guilty on 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 — although a legal expert contacted by reporters predicted that his sentence would in reality last less than a decade.
Trump expressed regret over the verdict, calling Manafort “a good man.”
“I feel very sad about that,” Trump told reporters as he arrived in West Virginia for a rally. “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 US Republican nomination.
“He worked for many, many people,” Trump said, citing campaigns for former US president Ronald Reagan and former US Senate majority leader Bob Dole.
It was Cohen’s decision to enter a plea deal that might pose the most problems for Trump.
While it is US legal tradition that the president cannot be tried, the allegation, if proven, would only increase calls for his impeachment as US congressional elections in November approach.
“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.”
Questioned by US District Judge William Pauley, Cohen said that he had separately paid sums of US$130,000 and US$150,000 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.
The judge told the 51-year-old that he faced a maximum of 65 years of imprisonment, with his sentence set to be handed down on Dec. 12.
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