Money and loyalty were the glue that bound Trump and Cohen
By JONATHAN LEMIRE
Monday, August 27
NEW YORK (AP) — For Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, it’s always been about money and loyalty.
Those were guiding principles for Cohen when he served as more than just a lawyer for Trump during the developer’s rise from celebrity to president-elect. Cohen brokered deals for the Trump Organization, profited handsomely from a side venture into New York City’s real estate and taxi industries and worked to make unflattering stories about Trump disappear.
Money and loyalty also drove Cohen to make guilty pleas this past week in a spinoff from the swirling investigations battering the Trump White House.
Feeling abandoned by Trump and in dire financial straits, the man who once famously declared that he would “take a bullet” for Trump now is pledging loyalty to his own family and actively seeking to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The unraveling of their relationship was laid bare Tuesday when Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges and said in federal court that he broke campaign finance laws as part of a cover-up operation that Trump had directed.
In the days after Cohen’s guilty plea, two close associates — the magazine boss who helped him squash bad stories and the top financial man at the president’s business — have been granted immunity for their cooperation. These moves could have a ripple effect on the legal fortunes of Cohen and, perhaps, Trump.
For years, Cohen was a fixture in Trump’s orbit.
Working alongside Trump and Trump’s three adult children — Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric — in Trump Tower, Cohen took on a number of roles for the developer, including emissary for projects in foreign capitals and enforcer of Trump’s will. At times a bully for a family-run business, Cohen was known for his hot temper as he strong-armed city workers, reluctant business partners and reporters.
He was there in the lobby of Trump Tower in June 2015 when his boss descended an escalator and changed history by declaring his candidacy for president. But Cohen’s place in Trump’s political life ended up being peripheral.
Cohen did become a reliable surrogate on cable TV — he created a viral moment by repeating “Says who?” when told Trump was down in the polls — and founded the candidate’s faith-based organization. But Cohen was never given a prominent spot in the campaign.
And despite telling confidants that he thought he had a shot at White House chief of staff after the election, Cohen was never given a West Wing job. He remained in New York when Trump moved to Washington.
Cohen found ways to profit from the arrangement, making millions from corporations by selling access to Trump, but felt adrift and isolated from Trump, according to two people familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
But early one April morning, more than three dozen federal agents raided Cohen’s home, office and hotel room.
A chief focus for investigators was Cohen’s role in making payments during Trump’s campaign to women who claimed they had sex with Trump, and whether campaign finance laws were violated. In the fall of 2016, weeks before the election, Cohen had set up a limited liability company in Delaware to hide the deal he made to silence the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels about an affair she said she had with Trump.
Worry grew within the White House about what had been seized. That April day, Trump berated the raid as “an attack on all we stand for.” But then, in a “Fox & Friends” interview, Trump began to dramatically play down his relationship with Cohen.
“I have nothing to do with his business,” Trump said, asserting that Cohen was just one of many lawyers and was responsible for “a tiny, tiny fraction” of Trump’s legal work.
A dispute soon broke out between Cohen and Trump over who would pay the former fixer’s mounting legal bills. Holed up in a Park Avenue hotel after his apartment flooded, Cohen began to worry about his financial future, according to the two people.
By all appearances, Cohen’s lifestyle was lavish.
He bought a $6.7 million Manhattan apartment last fall, though the sale didn’t close until April and no one could move in until the summer. With bills piling up for his team of expensive lawyers, the suddenly unemployed Cohen began to tell confidants that he was worried about his job prospects and ability to support his family.
Meanwhile, the broadsides from the White House kept coming.
Trump and Cohen had long stopped speaking, but word would get back to the lawyer that the president was belittling him. The president’s attorney and frequent attack dog Rudy Giuliani went from calling Cohen “an honest, honorable lawyer” in May to deriding him as a “pathological liar” in July.
Cohen began wondering to friends whether loyalty with Trump had become a one-way street, the people said.
Eager to hit back and attempt to regain some hold on the story, Cohen hired Lanny Davis, a former Bill Clinton attorney, to be his public relations lawyer. Davis began striking back at the White House and lobbed a clear warning shot at the president when he released a secret recording of a conversation in which Trump appears to have knowledge about hush-money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also alleged an affair with the developer.
Cohen was embraced by the cable news networks as an irresistible foil to Trump. Some on the left styled him as a star of the resistance. Cohen’s camp made some effort to play into the role, reaching out to Watergate whistle-blower John Dean and, after Cohen’s plea, establishing an online fundraising tool that seemed to predominantly receive backing from liberals.
Cohen, who could get about four years to five years in prison, is due to be sentenced Dec. 12.
Davis has strongly telegraphed that Cohen is willing to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation. But a deal has yet to be struck and there are doubts about what Cohen can prove or whether the special counsel would want to rely on an untrustworthy witness.
Cohen has stayed out of sight and has remained emotional since his plea, according to the people close to him.
The attacks from Trump have continued.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonLemire
Michael Cohen’s guilty plea? ‘Nothing to see here’
August 24, 2018
Associate Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University
Jennifer Mercieca does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Texas A&M University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
On the afternoon of Aug. 21, when news of Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s plea deal emerged within hours of one another, the social media channels of Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters went dark.
The statements of Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney, seemed damaging.
Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges of campaign finance violations and swore, under oath, that he acted to prevent “information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign” from reaching the public for the “principal purpose of influencing the election.” In confessing to the federal crimes Cohen also implicated his client, Trump, by saying he committed these crimes at the behest of “a candidate for federal office.”
As a New York Times analysis put it, Cohen’s statement in court “carried echoes of President Richard M. Nixon, who was named an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in the special prosecutor’s investigation of Watergate.”
Because of the seriousness of Cohen’s plea, the question wasn’t if Trump and his surrogates would respond, but when.
Trump and his team reportedly “spent hours working on a statement” to attempt to clear Trump’s name and reject the “unindicted co-conspirator” label. By the following morning, a messaging strategy seemed to coalesce.
As a professor of rhetoric and argumentation who is finishing a book about Trump’s presidential campaign, I paid close attention to what Trump’s camp decided to say in his defense.
“Apologia” – an Ancient Greek term for the speech of self-defense – can assume a few well-known forms. They include: denial (“I didn’t do it”), differentiation (“It wasn’t what you think, it was something else”), bolstering (“Important people approve of what I did, so you should, too”) and transcendence (“Let’s focus on what is really important here – the big picture”).
Trump’s apologia has been primarily based upon denial and differentiation. He wants to persuade Americans that he did nothing wrong and that things are not what they appear to be.
To buttress this, his defenders relied upon what rhetoric scholars call “points of stasis,” which are questions that debaters since Aristotle have used to develop their most persuasive appeals.
Points of stasis deal with four questions: What happened? How should we understand it? How should we value it? What should we do about it?
In coming up with answers to these questions, debaters will attempt to frame what happened, influence how we should understand it, dictate how we should value it and outline what should be done about it.
When paired with apologia, points of stasis can be used to try to wiggle out of difficult situations. They can help an audience understand new information from the perspective of your side and mitigate damaging charges.
For example, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to explain what happened when he released a statement denying that Trump was implicated at all in the Cohen matter. “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen,” it read, framing the events in a way that vindicated Trump from any wrongdoing.
But, you might wonder, if Trump wasn’t specifically implicated in Cohen’s guilty plea, then how should we understand what happened? Didn’t hush money still get paid to help the campaign?
To shape how observers might make sense of this, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, the author of the book “The Case Against Impeaching Trump,” appeared on CNN, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Fox and Friends” to argue that everyone commits campaign finance violations – and that campaign finance rules are incomprehensible anyway.
In other words, viewers should realize that this is something really common in politics – an easy mistake to make that shouldn’t be thought of as a big deal.
According to Dershowitz, campaign finance violations are trivial infractions like jaywalking. And if hush money were paid, while it’s not exactly noble behavior, it isn’t a crime. Little value, he seems to be saying, should attributed to the crimes – if they were committed at all.
Furthermore, there’s not much that can even be done about it, they say. A sitting president cannot be indicted (and therefore audiences and courts do not get to judge). And even if it were crime, it isn’t a “high crime,” so it isn’t an impeachable offense.
To recap the points of stasis:
- What happened? There’s no allegation of wrongdoing by the president in the government’s charges.
- How should we understand Cohen’s guilty plea? It’s a mere campaign finance violation, which everyone commits.
- What sort of stock should we put into this crime? It’s like jaywalking.
- What if Trump paid hush money? Not great, but not illegal.
- What can be done about it? Nothing. The president can’t be indicted.
In the days since Cohen’s plea deal, these points of stasis have been repeated to shore up Trump’s denial of wrongdoing and differentiate campaign finance violations from “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the phrase in the Constitution that describes impeachable offenses.
Of course, this isn’t playing out in a courtroom or in the Athenian Agora. Instead, it’s playing out in the court of public opinion. Impeachment is a political process, and it seems to hinge on whether enough voters get fully behind the effort.
In this sense, one bolstering strategy may resound the most. Trump’s base is so firmly in his camp, some of his backers in the media have argued, that this news won’t hurt Trump’s political standing.
It doesn’t really matter if he is an unindicted co-conspirator, they say – because his supporters won’t care.
Trump may have enough support for now to stay afloat. How long he can tread water is unclear.
There’s a dark history to the campaign finance laws Michael Cohen broke — and that should worry Trump
August 23, 2018
Leroy Highbaugh Sr. Research Chair and Professor of Law, Stetson University
Ciara C Torres-Spelliscy has received funding from Public Citizen. She is affiliated with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Politics usually takes a summer vacation in August. But not during the Trump administration.
On Aug. 21, Michael Cohen, who until recently was President Trump’s long-time personal lawyer, surrendered to federal prosecutors in Manhattan after months of investigation into tax evasion and other crimes dating back to 2011.
Cohen pleaded guilty to violating a variety of laws, including two United States campaign finance laws: a ban on corporate contributions to candidates for federal office and the limit on individual campaign contributions.
The charges could land Cohen up to 65 years in jail, but his deal with prosecutors is likely to knock his sentence down to about five years. It may also have serious repercussions for President Donald Trump.
No corporate gifts
The United States government first began regulating money in elections in 1907 with the Tillman Act, which today still bars corporations from donating to political candidates.
Cohen broke that law when he, according to the criminal information filed in court, “caused” American Media Inc. – owner of the tabloid National Inquirer – to pay former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal US$150,000 to stay quiet about her alleged affair with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
American Media Inc. also likely violated the Tillman Act with this payment, but prosecutors have not yet indicted individuals there.
The Tillman Act was inspired by a 1904 election scandal in which New York insurance companies secretly gave their policy holders’ money to the Republican Party to help Theodore Roosevelt get elected president.
After the news broke that illicit funds had helped finance his campaign, Roosevelt – by then the sitting president – addressed Congress, decrying the dangers of corporate money in American democracy.
Calling for “vigorous measures,” Roosevelt said the nation must “protect the integrity of the elections of its own officials” because there was “no enemy of free government more dangerous and none so insidious” as corporate financing.
Congress eventually agreed with him. For the past century, the Tillman Act has banned corporations from influencing elections by directly donating to federal candidates like Donald Trump.
Stormy Daniels and the $2,700 spending cap
The second campaign finance law Cohen violated, the individual contribution limit, also emerged from political scandal – a pattern I’ve observed in my years studying U.S. campaign finance law.
Since 1974 the United States has capped the amount a person can contribute to a presidential candidate in a single campaign.
When Cohen gave $130,000 to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels in October 2016 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump, he exceeded the current $2,700 limit.
The money, which Cohen got from a fraudulently obtained home equity line of credit – a separate crime – is considered a campaign contribution because, as Cohen recently told a federal judge in New York, it was paid “for the principle purpose of influencing the election.”
The individual contribution limit traces back to Watergate.
President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President – the campaign committee known as “CREEP” – used its money to pay the Republican operatives who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. during the 1972 presidential race.
CREEP had both illegal and legal campaign funds in its coffers. The illegal moneys included sizable gifts from donors who wanted Nixon to appoint them to coveted foreign ambassadorships, a practice known to both Republican and Democratic presidents.
The legal contributions to Nixon’s campaign included large contributions from wealthy donors who wanted to wield other forms of influence in the White House.
At the president’s instruction, his aides and friends solicited secret $100,000 donations from such leaders of industry as billionaire Howard Hughes and agribusiness titan Dwayne Andreas. Sometimes the money was “contributed” to Nixon’s campaign in envelopes of cash delivered to the Oval Office.
After Watergate exposed these campaign practices, the public responded with revulsion. One out of every four letters sent to Congress was from Americans demanding stronger rules governing money in politics. The response was the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act.
This bipartisan reform created the Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, and required federal candidates, political action committees, parties and independent political spenders to disclose their political spending. It also limited maximum individual campaign contributions to $1,000.
A 2002 bipartisan reform of the act raised that amount to $2,000. In 2016 the contribution cap increased to $2,700 to account for inflation.
What Cohen’s crimes mean for Trump
Despite President Trump and his legal team’s claims to the contrary, these two campaign finance violations are crimes.
When he pleaded guilty, Cohen also testified under oath that he committed the felonies “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
If true, these admissions mean President Trump took part in Cohen’s crimes.
Based on Cohen’s testimony, Trump may be what’s called an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in his lawyer’s crimes. Elizabeth Williams via AP
So far, this is not new territory for the country. President Nixon was also found to be what’s called an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Watergate cover-up, meaning he committed crimes but was not charged for them.
Nixon resigned from office before Congress could formally impeach him. He was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, so the Department of Justice never had to face the constitutional crisis of prosecuting a sitting president.
Both Trump and White House officials have repeatedly denied responsibility for Cohen’s criminal acts. This leaves Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other prosecutors in a quandary about how to proceed with these campaign finance violations.
Like Nixon, the president of the United States may now be an unindicted co-conspirator in felonies committed by his lawyer. But, so far, Trump shows no signs of resigning.