Michael Cohen: The Big Questions

Michael Cohen was found guilty — and implicated the President in federal crimes, too. What’s next?

By Abby White

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, implicated the president in federal crimes August 21.

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, was found guilty August 21 of breaking campaign finance laws, five counts of tax evasion and one count of bank fraud. The bigger news, though, was Cohen’s guilty plea, in which he implicated President Trump in a federal crime: directing Cohen to arrange illegal payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about their alleged affairs with Trump. In the aftermath of Cohen’s trial, Quibbl mines the media landscape for the questions everyone wants to answer.

Robert Mueller
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference has raised fears within the Trump camp.

The payments to Daniels and McDougal, while illegal, are tangential to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work investigating the Trump campaign’s role in Russian election interference. The White House has repeatedly brushed off any connection between the two investigations, let alone any suggestion of Trump’s guilt. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House’s Press Secretary, repeated a tripartite denial to reporters after Cohen’s trial, according to the New York Times: “The president has done nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. There is no collusion.” However, Cohen’s claim suggests corruption in the Trump team comes from the top down, and may help Mueller collect enough evidence to request Trump appear in court.

Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement August 23 declaring that the Justice Department “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” the latest mark of rising tensions between him and President Trump.

By implicating Trump in a federal crime, Cohen may have also inflamed tensions between Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump has criticized Sessions for months for recusing himself from anything involving the federal investigation into Russian election interference. In a recent Fox News interview, Trump spoke of Session’s recusal as a betrayal, given that he had appointed Sessions because of his “loyalty” during Trump’s campaign. Sessions responded with a rare statement August 23 in which he declared that the Justice Department “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” a stance that bodes poorly for the president — and, potentially, for Sessions’ job security.

Brett Kavanaugh
Brett Kavanaugh, photographed at his 2006 swearing-in to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, may face delays in his confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court Justice.

Democratic congressmen have responded to Cohen’s claim by making new calls to delay the nomination process for Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, until Congress can learn more about Trump’s alleged illegal activities. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the Senate Judiciary Committee “should immediately pause the consideration of the Kavanaugh nomination,” and several Democratic senators announced their agreement. Delaying Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings may give Democrats a chance to retake the Senate in the November elections and prevent Kavanaugh from taking the bench. However, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) shut down the idea of Republican cooperation, citing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s confirmation occurring after a grand jury has subpoenaed President Bill Clinton’s records.

Donald Trump 1
Legal experts disagree on whether President Trump, now implicated in federal crimes, can be indicted.

In most cases, if a lawyer pleads guilty in court and claims his client directed him to commit that crime, said client would be indicted. However, the President of the United States may be an exception. Although the Constitution does not prevent a president’s indictment, the Justice Department has long considered sitting presidents exempt from prosecution. According to Philip Allen Lacovara, who counseled special prosecutors investigating President Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal, Cohen’s claims make Trump an “unindicted co-conspirator.” Legal experts remain split on whether a president can be indicted or not; some urge prosecutors to indict Trump but defer further proceedings until he leaves office.

Donald Trump 2
Congressmen are split by party about the question of impeaching President Trump.

There’s another option to hold Trump accountable for his alleged crimes: impeachment. Impeachment does not refer to removing an elected official from office; rather, it refers to the initial step beginning a process to remove that official. Only three presidents in U.S. history have faced impeachment hearings in the Senate; none have ever been removed from office because of impeachment. Right now, opinions about impeaching Trump depend on parties. Republican congressmen have continued to support him, with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) calling Trump’s alleged campaign finance violations fodder for “partisan camps.” However, Democratic congressmen have brought up impeachment: Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wanted to see more evidence, but “we may get there.”

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