Telling the truth may be the best legal option for President Trump

Telling the truth may be the best legal option for President Trump
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Following the flurry of legal events that occurred last week, it is worth taking a step back and distinguishing between those developments whose headlines will shortly disappear, versus those that could lead to serious jeopardy for the Trump administration going forward. No doubt Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE, Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the White House legal team will be hyper focused on this very same assessment, and that analysis is what will drive their strategy in the weeks and months ahead.

For all the attention it has gotten, the conviction in Virginia of former Trump campaign manager Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortCohen questioned for hours in Mueller probe about Trump's dealings with Russia: report Vote Democrat in midterms to rein in Trump, preserve justice Hillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe MORE on tax and bank fraud charges are unlikely to directly impact the the president. Assuming Manafort maintains his defiance through his upcoming second trial in the District of Columbia for money laundering and witness tampering, it seems he either will continue not to cooperate or has nothing of value to cooperate with that would implicate Trump in colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. That stance, and the president describing him as a “brave man” worthy of sympathy, indicates that Manafort is playing the long game to soldier on and hope for a pardon down the line.


Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, on the other hand, has pled guilty and effectively implicated the president in two campaign finance law violations for payments related to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. The prosecution’s position is that these hush payments were made during the 2016 campaign to prevent negative publicity and advance the candidate, and as a result were campaign contributions subject to dollar caps and reporting requirements. Cohen, as the engineer behind these payments, has now stated in federal court they were made “in coordination with and at the direction of” candidate Trump. As of now, this accusation is clearly what holds the greatest danger for Trump in terms of a potential future impeachment or prosecution.

As a result, there are three general approaches that the president and his legal team may adopt as they maneuver this minefield. None of them are great options, and each comes with its own potential risks and rewards.

Deny everything

One is to outright deny Cohen’s story and label him a liar who cannot be trusted. We have already seen glimmers of this approach in Giuliani’s past statements calling Cohen a “pathological liar” who will say anything to save himself. This is a risky strategy because Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis has already produced one recording that purportedly links Trump to payments made to Daniels, and who knows what else exists to corroborate his version of events. At a minimum, expect Trump to continue hammering Cohen, now a convicted felon, as untruthful and to use Cohen’s own prior inconsistent statements against him.

Downplay and deflect

We have already seen this approach used regarding the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, where the initial story that the meeting was about Russian adoptions gradually evolved into an admission that its purpose was to obtain opposition research on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE. There is a good chance that Trump will eventually admit to knowing about the hush payments, but perhaps claim ignorance as to the details and say that he trusted his attorney Cohen was doing things on the up and up.

Alternately, Trump can argue that even if the payments were technical violations of campaign finance laws, he should receive only a slap on the wrist because they ultimately were funded out of his own pocket, an arguably circuitous way of legalizing the payments. Trump has already deflected from his situation by pointing out that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFord taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not MORE’s 2008 campaign had its own finance violations, and expect comparisons to the failed prosecution of John Edwards on similar charges to follow.

Just tell the truth

The most unlikely option is also the simplest, which is to come clean. Tell the lawyers to stand down, call for a televised address to the nation, and explain exactly what happened with respect to the hush payments. During the same address, lay out the details surrounding the Trump Tower meeting and the firing of former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFBI memos detail ‘partisan axes,’ secret conflicts behind the Russia election meddling assessment New grounds for impeachment? House Dem says Trump deserves it for making society worse Sessions gets unexpected support - from a Democrat who wants to impeach Trump MORE. This would largely take the wind out from behind the sails of Cohen, Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti, and special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, and lay it all out for America to absorb. It would not stop the Russia probe in its tracks, but it certainly would give Trump the advantage of providing his own account rather than waiting to see what Mueller comes up with.

In the end, Trump knows full well that he will be judged not in court but by Congress and the American people. So rather than continue to be bogged down in a long protracted legal fight, why not tell the truth now and get it done with? This may be the hardest option for a man famous for hunkering down and fighting to his last breath, but it would throw his opponents off their game and just might help bring this national ordeal to an end.

Joseph Moreno is a former federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice, a former staff member with the 9/11 Review Commission, and a United States Army combat veteran. He is now a litigation attorney with Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft. Follow him on Twitter @JosephMoreno.