Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, leaves federal court after his sentencing in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, leaves federal court after his sentencing in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

As protectors abandon Trump, investigation draws closer

Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for an array of crimes.

President Donald Trump has now been abandoned by two of his most powerful protectors, his longtime lawyer and the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid, bringing a perilous investigation into his campaign one step closer to the Oval Office.

Both Michael Cohen and American Media Inc. now say they made hush money payments to a porn star and a Playboy Playmate for the purposes of helping his 2016 White House bid, an apparent campaign finance violation.

The women alleged affairs with Trump, and federal prosecutors say the payments were made at Trump’s direction.

The admissions by Cohen and AMI conflict with Trump’s own evolving explanations. Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to saying they would have been private transactions that weren’t illegal.

Though prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven’t directly accused him of one, and it’s not clear that they could bring charges against a sitting president even if they want to because of Justice Department protocol.

Nonetheless, Trump’s changing explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred and are running head-on into facts agreed to by prosecutors, AMI and Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced on Wednesday.

“You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and that it was done in co-ordination with Trump and his campaign,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

Read more: Judge gives Michael Cohen 3 years in prison

Read more: Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met Russian, offering ‘political synergy,’ U.S. says

Trump’s first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet over West Virginia.

Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump on April 6 for the first time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would “have to ask Michael Cohen.”

Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a “disgrace” and said the FBI “broke into” his lawyer’s office. He also tweeted that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!”

The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference. At the time, Cohen said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump’s knowledge.

Later that month in a free-wheeling “Fox & Friends” interview, Trump acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.”

In May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said those agreements are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth” and “this was a private agreement.”

People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company “for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump’s friend and president of AMI.

When Cohen began to discuss financing, Trump interrupted him and asked, “What financing?”

“We’ll have to pay,” Cohen responded.

Prosecutors announced Wednesday that AMI acknowledged making one of those payments “in concert” with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy. The company avoided prosecution under a deal with prosecutors.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges, saying he and Trump arranged the payment of hush money to Daniels and McDougal to influence the election. That next day, Trump argued that making the payments wasn’t a crime and that the matter was a civil dispute, then took a swipe at his former employee.

“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” he tweeted.

Earlier this week, Trump compared his situation to one involving President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically handles smaller campaign finance violations, where the actions aren’t wilful, with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign $375,000 for regulatory civil violations. The fines stemmed from the campaign’s failure to report a batch of contributions, totalling nearly $1.9 million, on time in the final days of the campaign.

But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a felony because they revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments from campaign contribution reports – and from voters. It’s unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.

The Justice Department, in opinions issued by its Office of Legal Counsel, has said a sitting president cannot be indicted because a criminal case would interfere with the duties of the commander in chief. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and with Mueller’s office, would presumably be bound by that legal guidance unless the Justice Department were to nullify the opinions.

Politically, Trump’s shifting claims could harm his credibility with voters, but legally they may not make much of a difference.

“It’s not clear to me that he’s made any false statements in legal documents that could open him to liability for perjury,” Hasen said.

For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of benefiting his campaign.

Trump has not yet laid out a detailed defence, though he could conceivably argue that the payments were made not for the purposes of advancing his campaign but rather to prevent sex stories from emerging that would be personally humiliating to him and harm his marriage.

That argument was advanced by former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, in a similar campaign finance case that went to trial. But that may be tougher for Trump than it was for Edwards given the proximity of the president’s payment to the election — timing that, on its face, suggests a link between the money and his political ambitions.

Still, the cases aren’t always easy, as proven by the 2012 trial of Edwards. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions, but couldn’t reach a verdict on the five remaining counts including conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors elected not to retry Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate for president in 2004 and 2008.

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

___

Jonathan Lemire And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C.’s parliament buildings in Victoria. (Photo: Tom Fletcher)
Surrey gets two cabinet ministers, a parliamentary secretary and government whip

Premier John Horgan’s NDP MLAs were sworn in on Tuesday and the cabinet was revealed Thursday afternoon

Steve ‘Elvis’ Elliott performs for residents of Amica White Rock. Exercise-to-music programs that led to a threat of city fines due to a noise complaint are to resume next week. (Contributed file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Amica White Rock

Peace Portal Seniors Village outbreak declared over

Wickson Pier in Crescent Beach is closed to the public, as work to replace and repair piles continues. (Susan Richards de Wit photo)
PHOTOS: Repairs to Crescent Beach pier complete

$180,000 Wickson Pier project included pile replacement, says City of Surrey parks manager

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Brenda Locke trying to breathe life into Surrey’s defunct Public Safety Committee

Surrey councillor’s motion will be up for debate at a future council meeting

RCMP logo
Keen-eyed neighbour’s call to police helps stop South Surrey burglary in progress

Mounties were on the way before suspects triggered home alarm

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

Arthur Topham has been sentenced to one month of house arrest and three years of probation after breaching the terms of his probation. Topham was convicted of promoting hate against Jewish people in 2015. (Photo submitted)
Quesnel man convicted for anti-Semitic website sentenced to house arrest for probation breach

Arthur Topham was convicted of breaching probation following his 2017 sentence for promoting hatred

Langley School District's board office. (Langley Advance Times files)
‘Sick Out’ aims to pressure B.C. schools over masks, class sizes

Parents from Langley and Surrey are worried about COVID safety in classrooms

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The baby boy born to Gillian and Dave McIntosh of Abbotsford was released from hospital on Wednesday (Nov. 25) while Gillian continues to fight for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
B.C. mom with COVID-19 still fighting for life while newborn baby now at home

Son was delivered Nov. 10 while Gillian McIntosh was in an induced coma

B.C. Premier John Horgan, a Star Trek fan, can’t resist a Vulcan salute as he takes the oath of office for a second term in Victoria, Nov. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
Horgan names 20-member cabinet with same pandemic team

New faces in education, finance, economic recovery

A new ‘soft reporting’ room is opening inside the Ann Davis Transition Society offices on Dec. 1, 2020 which is thought to be the first of its kind in B.C. (Ann Davis Transitional Society/ Facebook)
New ‘trauma-informed’ reporting room opening next week in Chilliwack

It’s a space for reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, or gender-based violence to police

The corporate headquarters of Pfizer Canada are seen in Montreal, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. The chief medical adviser at Health Canada says Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in Canada next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Health Canada expects first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved next month

Canada has a purchase deal to buy at least 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine,

Most Read