President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE faces new legal troubles stemming from recent developments in the sprawling federal investigations into his associates and 2016 campaign.
It’s unclear what legal jeopardy, if any, Trump might be in, and long-standing Justice Department guidelines state that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
But the sentencing of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and revelation that the parent company of the National Enquirer has turned state’s evidence establish clear links between the president and illegal actions his former allies say he directed.
Cohen and American Media Inc. (AMI) now say they made payments to a former Playboy model and adult-film actress to help Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a move that federal prosecutors say was a campaign finance violation. The two women — Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels — allege they had extramarital affairs with Trump, and the government says he directed the payments with the intention of buying their silence in the weeks before Election Day.
Those new admissions conflict with Trump’s evolving explanations for the payments. The president earlier this year denied any knowledge of the arrangements but has said in recent days that the payments were legal.
Even though Trump has been implicated in a federal crime, he has not been directly accused of violating the law. And Justice Department rules could prevent prosecutors from bringing charges against him while he is in office.
Nonetheless, legal experts say Trump’s legal exposure is serious.
“It’s just another domino falling,” said Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “If he wasn’t president, he’d be expecting an indictment any day.”
While the payments to Daniels and McDougal appear to pose the most danger to Trump, new prongs of the investigation begun by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE are sprouting up and moving closer to the besieged president.
Federal investigators are said to be probing the Trump Organization’s role in the payments, and they could acquire a valuable witness in Allen Weisselberg, its chief financial officer. He has worked for Trump for decades and was deeply involved in the president’s business practices.
Prosecutors reportedly struck an immunity deal with Weisselberg during the Cohen investigation, but it remains unclear what information, if any, he has provided to the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.
On a separate front, federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating whether Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of the $107 million in donations it received, opening a new front in the legal onslaught for Trump — one that reportedly originated from documents seized from Cohen.
Mueller continues to grind on in his investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, turning the president’s associates into cooperators who have provided insight into the campaign and their interactions with the White House.
Those developments have raised concerns about the ability of the White House legal team to handle the onslaught of federal investigations, as well as the probes expected to be launched by congressional Democrats starting next year.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone started his job earlier this month and is said to be assembling a team of deputies to handle the investigations.
Cipollone is considered to be well-liked by Trump’s personal lawyers, but his background is in commercial litigation — not the type of investigations the president faces.
“If I were him, I would have a team of former federal prosecutors representing me. He doesn’t seem to have [that],” said Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The White House declined to comment on hires in the counsel’s office.
Others close to the White House are hoping that Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington lawyer brought on to respond to the Russia probe, will remain in his post.
Flood served as acting White House counsel after Don McGahn left the West Wing as its top lawyer. Now that Cipollone has started, Flood’s role is unclear.
He has deep experience handling investigations, most notably when he represented former President Clinton during the impeachment proceedings brought by congressional Republicans in the late 1990s.
Amid the various investigations, Trump and his allies have attempted to muddle the public’s understanding of facts laid out by prosecutors in court.
When he first addressed the hush-money payments aboard Air Force One in April, the president told reporters he had no knowledge of the $130,000 paid to Daniels, saying they would “have to ask Michael Cohen.”
During the ensuing months, however, Trump and his legal team began to admit that the then-presidential candidate had knowledge of the payments. But they insisted that there was no wrongdoing.
“Number one, they say it’s not a campaign finance violation. Number two, or it’s not even under campaign finance — number two if it was, it’s not even a violation. Number three it’s a civil matter,” Trump said Thursday during an interview with Fox News.
The president and his allies likened the payments to Federal Election Commission (FEC) fines President Obama’s 2008 campaign paid for violating reporting requirements for donations. But legal experts say Trump could be implicated on a more serious crime because of the sophisticated attempts to hide the payments from the FEC and the public.
“That shows that you have knowledge that it’s improper, illegal, and that you have intent to evade the law,” said Honig.
Trump also said on Fox that neither he nor his campaign paid the National Enquirer to purchase McDougal’s silence about the alleged affair, saying, “I don’t think we’ve made a payment to that tabloid.”
Prosecutors said AMI admitted to making a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign to prevent her allegations from hurting Trump’s chances in the election. AMI agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
New York prosecutors say AMI Chief Executive David Pecker met in August 2015 with Cohen and “one other member of the campaign” to offer to help deal with negative stories about Trump’s alleged affairs with women by assisting the campaign in identifying stories so they could be purchased and buried, a practice known as catch and kill.
NBC News identified the unnamed campaign member in the meeting as Trump.
“Of course,” Cohen said Friday in an interview with ABC News when asked if Trump knew what he was doing was wrong.
The president and his allies have, in turn, attempted to undermine Cohen’s credibility, even as Mueller’s team said in court that the former Trump lawyer has sought to be truthful in his assistance to investigators.
“The media is giving credence to a convicted criminal,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters Friday.
Gidley also sought to distance Trump from any alleged improprieties related to the 2017 inauguration.
“This charge has nothing to do with the president of the United States and it has nothing to do with this administration,” he said.
But the investigative news site ProPublica reported Friday that Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpHouse panel tees up Trump executive privilege fight in Jan. 6 probe Mary Trump doesn't see her cousins connecting with GOP Rubio: Biden's new child allowance is 'first step toward a universal basic income' MORE, who serves as a senior White House adviser, negotiated how much the inauguration would pay for stays at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, raising concerns about possible self-dealing.