The Memo: Cohen, Manafort hurricane hits Trump

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE’s longtime personal attorney and "fixer" Michael Cohen implicated him in a felony on Tuesday in federal court in New York.

Almost simultaneously, in a courtroom about 240 miles away in Virginia, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortLobbyist Tony Podesta returns to work for Huawei Former bank CEO convicted of bribery in scheme to land Trump admin job Trial begins for Chicago banker who exchanged loans with Manafort for Trump job MORE was found guilty on eight charges primarily related to tax and bank fraud.

The guilty plea entered by Cohen and verdict for Manafort delivered a pair of legal body blows to Trump, who has been seeking to discredit the broader probe into whether his campaign colluded with Russia led 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.

The significance of Tuesday’s events was immediately apparent.

Even the conservative news aggregation site Drudge Report, normally an influential and sympathetic voice toward the president, ran the headline: “Trump hell hour.”

NBC News anchor Chuck Todd called it perhaps “the most consequential day of the Trump presidency — yet.” 

Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who has represented clients from both major parties, said that it was the worst day of Trump’s presidency, at least “from a legal standpoint.”

“It is the most direct tie to a criminal offense,” Zaid told The Hill.

The president’s legal team sought to minimize the significance of the dramatic developments. 

In a statement, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani addressed the Cohen plea deal, saying, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen's actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”

But that statement carefully sidestepped the fact that Cohen himself contends that there was wrongdoing on Trump’s part.

Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, emphasized that point in an emailed statement that he also shared on Twitter.

Davis said that Cohen “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. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

(Davis has in the past written a column for The Hill.) 

Cohen now contends that he was acting at Trump’s direction in facilitating pay-offs to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 election. Both women allege they had sexual relationships with Trump more than a decade ago, early in his marriage to now-first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpOnly Trump can fix vaccine hesitancy among his supporters Trump discussed pardoning Ghislaine Maxwell: book Jill Biden appears on Vogue cover MORE.

Cohen told a Manhattan judge on Tuesday afternoon that the payments to the women had been made “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” 

If true, that would amount to a violation of election law, a felony.

Some voices that are usually supportive of Trump expressed grave concern over the Cohen plea deal, which directly implicated the president in a way that the Manafort verdict does not.

“It looks very bad regarding Michael Cohen’s guilty plea,” said one GOP strategist with ties to the White House, who cautioned that the Manafort verdict “doesn’t really connect back to Trump.”

The president told reporters after landing in West Virginia for a campaign rally that Manafort was "a good man" and that his conviction had "nothing to do with Russian collusion."

At the rally itself, Trump mostly avoided commenting on the legal bombshells that had struck him earlier in the day. To widespread surprise, he restrained himself to a brief attack on the “witch hunt” and a taunting of prosecutors to “find some collusion!”

The argument made by Trump loyalists with regard to Manafort rests upon the fact that the charges pertained to a period before the 69-year-old had any involvement with the Trump campaign. That involvement began in March 2016 and ended in August of the same year.

The Manafort guilty verdicts were, however, a sizable win for Mueller’s team.

The fact that convictions were secured — on tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to declare a foreign bank account — make it harder than ever for Trump’s argument that the probe is a “rigged witch hunt” to gain traction beyond his hardcore base of support.

That remains the case even though the jury deadlocked on 10 counts in addition to the eight on which they convicted Manafort.

CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin told The Hill, “The thought was that if Mueller had lost this case, the drumbeat of ‘end this witch hunt’ would have been louder. … This takes the wind out of the sails of the ‘shut it down’ advocates.”

Mueller has now indicted more than 30 people. He has secured guilty pleas from five of them —including Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn, his former deputy campaign manager Richard Gates and a former foreign policy adviser, George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosTrump supporters show up to DC for election protest Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies Klobuchar: Trump 'trying to burn this country down on his way out' MORE.

The Manafort verdict was, from Mueller’s perspective, a successful first test in open court.

Manafort could face up to 80 years in prison and is scheduled to face additional charges in a District of Columbia court next month. 

Additionally, prosecutors could choose to retry him on the charges on which the jury deadlocked on Tuesday.

A Manafort spokesman has suggested he could appeal the verdict.

There is also, however, some possibility that Manafort could cooperate with prosecutors even at this late stage, in search of leniency in sentencing or reducing the remaining charges. It is in this regard, Zeldin said, that his conviction is “dangerous to the president.”

Right now, there are plenty of more immediate dangers to focus the minds of Trump and his allies.

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