Skip to main content

Cohen has 'knowledge' of Russia campaign conspiracy, lawyer says

August 22, 2018 09:46 am Updated: August 22, 2018 09:46 am

President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has "knowledge" about computer hacking and collusion that may interest Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Cohen's lawyer said.

One day after Cohen pleaded guilty to illegal campaign finance charges over hush money paid to a porn actress and a former Playboy model -- all but naming Trump as having ordered him to do it -- Cohen's lawyer said Wednesday he would be happy to share the information with the special counsel or Congress.

"It's my observation that Mr. Cohen has knowledge that would be of interest to the special counsel about the issue of whether Donald Trump, ahead of time, knew about the hacking of emails, which is a computer crime," attorney Lanny Davis told CNN in an interview Wednesday.

Davis told MSNBC Tuesday night that Cohen's knowledge involves the "possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election."

Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump, if offered, Davis said. "Not only is he not hoping for it, he would not accept a pardon. He considers a pardon from somebody who has acted so corruptly as president to be something he would never accept," Davis told NBC Wednesday.

Trump suffered through perhaps the worst day of his presidency Tuesday as his personal lawyer implicated him in a crime at almost the same time his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, became a convicted felon.

Moments after the charges in Cohen's plea were read aloud in a Manhattan courtroom, Manafort was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud charges, boosting Mueller's investigation.

The dueling sagas were the clearest sign yet of the political and legal peril that is increasingly threatening Trump's presidency. While the legal ramifications will take more time to unfold, the political damage is already being felt, with Democrats seizing on the rulings.

"The White House looks increasingly like a criminal enterprise with the convictions today of President Trump's former campaign manager and personal lawyer," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.

A president who won election in part by labeling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, a criminal -- complete with chants of "lock her up!" at campaign rallies -- has now seen three close associates brought down by federal prosecutors, including his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Mueller's probe into whether the Trump campaign was involved in Russia's interference in the 2016 elections continues. But Mueller handed off the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in New York, which means that his guilty plea intensifies a second -- and entirely separate -- investigation that could threaten the president.

Trump tried to shrug off the Manafort conviction, telling reporters Tuesday that "it had nothing to do with Russian collusion, so we continue the witch hunt."

His lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R, said the Cohen plea deal wasn't related to Trump. "There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen," he said in a statement. "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."

Cohen didn't name Trump in court, referring instead to a "candidate" who directed him to make the illegal payments.

Davis was more direct, saying in a statement later Tuesday that Cohen "stood up and 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."

A U.S. prosecutor told the judge the purpose of the payments was to ensure that the individuals did not disclose "alleged affairs with the candidate." In addition to a $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Cohen admitted to making an illegal contribution of $150,000, which was how much former Playmate Karen McDougal received from the National Enquirer's publisher to quash her story about an alleged affair.

Cohen has been under investigation since at least April, when the FBI raided his home and office.

Democrats immediately seized on the news to attack the president, as they look ahead to congressional elections in November where they hope to win back at least one chamber of Congress. And a number of Republicans also said the developments marked a significant turning point for Trump.

"It's a big day, it's a bad day," said John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, on the implications of Cohen's plea on Trump and his presidency. "I think we've established today that we have a criminal president, and that is historic."

Aboard Air Force One en route to West Virginia, Trump watched Fox News coverage of the Manafort verdict and Cohen's plea, two people near him said.

They described the president as somber but calm, and added that he said nothing critical about Cohen or Manafort. One aide said that Trump is battle-tested at this point and knows how to deal with extreme stress.

But there was no joking around on Air Force One as there sometimes is.

People close to the president reassured him and shared ways to deal with fallout from double-barreled bad news. What Trump was most interested in: how it's all playing.

Aides were aware Tuesday was a very bad day and were relieved the president wasn't sitting in the White House residence tied to the television for the evening. His travel companions, Rep. Alex Mooney and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, both of West Virginia, and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, distracted him with conversation about legislative issues and other topics, the people added.

In West Virginia, he did a private roundtable, a photo line, then the re-election campaign rally, surrounded by people who were happy to see him.

Some of Trump's aides and allies were worried about the consequences of the day's events. Two of them expressed concern for the country. Two others said it is now likelier that Democrats will win the House in November.

"Today clarifies that November is a referendum on impeachment -- an up-or-down vote," Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, said. "Every Trump supporter needs to get with the program."

If Trump knew about the payments and that they were illegal, he could be charged with violating election law for accepting illegal payments and not disclosing them, said Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with Common Cause. Current Justice Department guidelines state that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and that any wrongdoing should be referred to Congress for impeachment proceedings. Those guidelines aren't binding.

After first denying knowledge of the payment, Trump admitted in May to reimbursing Cohen for a $130,000 payment made on the eve of the election to Daniels, the porn actress, although he denied the transaction had anything to do with the campaign or involved campaign funds. Trump was also heard on a 2016 recording made by Cohen that appears to show Trump was informed of the payments.

At nearly the same time in a Virginia courtroom, Manafort was found guilty on five counts of tax fraud, one count of failing to file a financial document with the government, and two counts of bank fraud. The jury couldn't reach a decision on the other 10 counts. He was accused of lying to tax authorities about his income and offshore tax accounts, failing to file reports about those accounts, and defrauding banks to get loans.

The case was the first brought by Mueller to go to trial and gives weight to his investigation. Mueller has charged 32 people and secured five guilty pleas.

"It's a witch hunt and it's a disgrace," Trump said Tuesday of the Manafort verdict. "This has nothing what they started out looking for -- Russians involved in our campaign, there were none." Trump declined to answer questions on Cohen.

 

- With assistance from Bloomberg's Margaret Talev, Erik Larson, Adam Haigh and Todd White.