The Memo: Team Trump fights back

President Trump and his allies waged war against Michael Cohen Wednesday, one day after the president’s former lawyer and fixer implicated Trump in a felony during the 2016 campaign.

Cohen’s charge that he paid off two women who said they had sexual relationships with Trump — and, crucially, that he had done so at the then-candidate’s behest and with the intention of affecting the election — is reverberating across the political world.

But Trump’s team is seeking to blunt the impact by taking aim at Cohen’s credibility, downplaying the seriousness of the offenses being alleged — and insisting that the White House has not given in to panic.

{mosads}Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney and the former mayor of New York City, told The Hill “anybody that believes Cohen, probably you could sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Giuliani also stressed a detail of the case that has perplexed Trump fans and critics alike. Despite Cohen’s evident willingness to incriminate Trump, no formal cooperation agreement has emerged between him and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which has jurisdiction over his case.

“Obviously the Southern District did not enter into a cooperation agreement because they think he’s a liar,” Giuliani insisted.

Meanwhile, a White House official told The Hill that Trump’s mood remained buoyant despite the blast of negative news and the sudden deepening of his legal challenges.

“Yesterday was a little wilder than most, but there is no quiet day here,” the official said on Wednesday. “For reporters to write, ‘Oh my god, everybody is panicking’ — it’s just not true.”

The official asserted that Trump had also been pleased to get out his side of the story on Wednesday by taping an interview with Ainsley Earhardt of Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.” 

That interview had been scheduled before the Cohen news, or the almost simultaneous conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on fraud charges, had broken.

“There was some discussion — not with the president — about possibly canceling it, and we decided against that,” the White House official said. “We didn’t want to look like we are hunkered down.”

Even if that is the case, however, there was no mistaking Trump’s annoyance at the latest setbacks.

In a series of Wednesday morning tweets, Trump first sardonically stated, “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

He went on to express considerable sympathy for Manafort, describing him as “a brave man” and praising him for refusing to “break” by offering testimony against the president.

There has been speculation that Manafort could yet decide to cooperate with prosecutors, given that he faces another trial on additional charges in the District of Columbia next month — and that the maximum sentence for the offenses of which he has already been convicted is 80 years of imprisonment. Anything close to that would be a de facto life sentence for Manafort, who is 69.

Trump’s praise also gave rise to suggestions that he could be contemplating a pardon for Manafort. Such a move would spark an instant firestorm and even some Republican lawmakers cautioned against it. 

“I think it would be seen as a bridge too far,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday.

At the White House media briefing — her 100th as press secretary — Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was “not aware of any conversations regarding that at all.”

The question of just how bad the situation is for Trump is hotly contested. 

The Manafort verdict pertains to events long before the Republican operative had worked with Trump. The Cohen case, some in Trump’s circle argue, does not rise to the level of a prosecutable offense. They cite the acquittal of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) on broadly comparable charges in 2012.

But Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said that the situation for Trump was “pretty bad” after Cohen’s bombshell statements.

“Assuming the evidence would corroborate it, the president has direct liability and co-conspirator liability,” Litman said. “It’s a criminal action taken in an excruciatingly close election to try to swing things to Trump. The Watergate burglary was about that — trying to get an advantage. It is a serious crime indeed.”

The question of whether the allegations could result in Trump’s impeachment is central to the entire controversy. 

For now that seems only a distant possibility, given Republican majorities in the House as well as the Senate, and Trump’s strong approval ratings among GOP voters.

There is broad agreement across the political spectrum that even the explosive allegations made by Cohen will not necessarily erode Trump’s support among his base. 

“I doubt there is a single person who two days ago liked Trump and today thinks he should be impeached,” said one Republican close to the White House. “I don’t think there is a single person in the country whose opinion on Trump actually shifted, and so I think it’s highly unlikely that this will have any effect on the midterms.”

Other voices within Trump’s orbit sought a silver lining. 

One school of thought among the president’s allies — among them, former chief strategist Stephen Bannon — is that the best tactic to spur turnout among Republicans in the midterms is to cast the election as a referendum on whether the president should be impeached.

Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump friend, said Cohen’s U-turn could at least sharpen the sense of how high the stakes are in November.

“It’s the first time that the president has been implicated by anyone, so obviously it is a bad day,” Caputo said. But at the same time, “it puts the idea of impeachment squarely on the agenda … The message [in the midterms] is, vote for a Democrat to impeach the president and vote for a Republican to stop impeachment.”

There are plenty of grass-roots Democrats who would be happy to fight on just those terms, but Democratic leaders in Congress have so far balked at making impeachment a central part of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the question of just what Cohen knows looms over everything. 

His lawyer, Lanny Davis, has suggested that he may be willing to testify that Trump had advance knowledge of election hacking during the 2016 campaign — something that former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman also alleged during an MSNBC interview last week.

Legal experts are divided on the credibility of that claim, however. 

Caroline Polisi, a criminal defense attorney with Pierce Bainbridge, suggested that the courting of publicity by Davis could be a “Hail Mary” tactic to try to secure a cooperation deal on flimsy evidence.

Referring to Southern District prosecutors, Polisi added, “I don’t think they are interested in his cooperation, frankly.”

But Litman, the former U.S attorney, argued that it was hard for the president’s team, including Giuliani, to try to impugn Cohen’s integrity while Trump shows little willingness to offer sworn testimony himself. 

Cohen, Litman noted, is apparently “willing to say this under penalty of perjury. And you have the president, who is avoiding saying anything under oath — and has been turning cartwheels to avoid it for a year.”

Giuliani, for his part, returned to a version of Trump’s now-famous “no collusion” refrain.

Referring to Tuesday’s dramatic events, he said, “Did you hear anything about collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice? This is not about Michael Cohen distorting people over taxis or Paul Manafort’s 2005 tax case. This is about collusion with Russia. 

“I didn’t hear a goddamn single thing about collusion.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Cohen plea Donald Trump Lindsey Graham Omarosa Manigault Newman Paul Manafort Special Counsel investigation The Memo
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