Michael Cohen: What is the latest scandal and how does it impact Donald Trump?

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 18 January 2019 21:08 GMT
Former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen leaves court after being sentenced to three years in prison

Michael Cohen, a once loyal confidante of the president turned man who has done a plea deal over hush money payments made to two women on the eve of the election, is back in the news.

Two months before he is due to show up to prison to serve a three-year sentence as part of the deal in which he admitted arranging payments to Stormy Daniels and former model Karen McDougal – a breach of campaign finance laws – the president’s former personal lawyer is at the centre of new allegations; that he rigged an online poll in Donald Trump’s favour before the election, and that he lied to Congress about the extent of Trump’s dealings with Russia to set develop a Moscow Trump Tower.

BuzzFeed News set off a series of reverberations, when it reported that according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation, Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the negotiations. He said he also supported a plan hatched by Cohen to visit Moscow to meet Vladmir Putin. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.

The revelations have resulted in a call for action from Democrats and others. California congressman Adam Schiff said congress would “do what’s necessary” to find out if the contents of the report were true.

“The allegation that the president of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date,” he told reporters.

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  1. What are the new allegations against Trump?

    During his guilty plea last November, Cohen, 52, admitted he lied when he told Congress in August 2017 that the Moscow Trump Tower project, an idea that dated back as far as 1996, had collapsed by the end of January 2016, when Trump was one of just many candidates seeking the Republican nomination. In fact, it did not end until June 2016, by which point Trump was the only candidate still in contention, other than John Kasich. “In truth and in fact, Cohen’s representations to the Senate select committee on intelligence and the House committee about the Moscow Project were false and misleading,” according to a document filed by federal prosecutor in the southern district of New York. BuzzFeed said the two sources have now revealed Cohen also told special counsel Robert Mueller that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.

  2. What has been general response to the claims?

    No other media outlets have yet confirmed the account by BuzzFeed, though it is dominating much media coverage. Eric Holder, former attorney general under Barack Obama, tweeted: “If true - and proof must be examined - Congress must begin impeachment proceedings and Barr must refer, at a minimum, the relevant portions of material discovered by Mueller. This is a potential inflection point.”

  3. What else is Cohen said to have done?

    The Wall Street Journal said this week that Trump’s longtime fixer, had paid the head of a technology company thousands of dollars in 2015 to rig online polls at “the direction of and for the sole benefit of” the man now sitting in the White House. The newspaper said the money was paid to John Gauger, the owner of RedFinch Solutions LLC. Gauger told the paper he was not fully paid for the work, though it said Cohen was reimbursed $50,000 by the Trump Organisation.

    The Associated Press pointed out that federal prosecutors referred to a payment to Gauger's company, though they did not name it, when Cohen was charged last summer with violating campaign-finance laws. They said in a charging document, Cohen had sought reimbursement from the Trump Organisation for those payments with a handwritten note requesting $50,000 for “tech services”.

    On Thursday, Cohen tweeted that he had acted “at the direction of and for the sole benefit” of Trump. “I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn't deserve it.”

  4. How has Trump and his legal team responded?

    On Thursday night, as the BuzzFeed story broke, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, sought to dismiss Cohen’s credibility without issuing an outright denial. “If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge,” Giuliani told the Washington Post. By Friday morning, perhaps aware that the optics did not very good, the former mayor of New York was more categorical.

    “Any suggestion – from any source – that the president counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false,” he said. “Cohen has traded on a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time and he is going to pay a very, very serious price. Today’s claims are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation in an effort to reduce his sentence.”

    Trump reacted on Twitter: “Lying to reduce his jail time!”

    White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters of the claim: "Look, that's absolutely ridiculous."

  5. What does all this mean?

    In terms of public perception, perhaps not that much. By this point, most people have made up their minds about the president’s behaviour and whether or not he has broken the law. The difference in tone in Cohen’s claims from now and in November, are probably too subtle for many But what is different is that it seems special counsel Robert Mueller has testimony that Trump committed a crime - perjury. Federal prosecutors have already said that Cohen’s hush money payments were carried out at the direction of Trump.

    Of crucial importance will now be what the Democrats on Capitol Hill do. They control the House of Representatives and have already vowed to hold hearings into the claims. The House is where any impeachment proceeding against Trump would start out. Speaker Nancy Pelosi may wish to hold off going down that route until Mueller completes his report. But she has many young progressive among her members who are itching to get at Trump.

    And as others have said, even if the Department of Justice decides it cannot indict a siting president - this idea based on a legal memo written in 1973 - there is nothing to stop charges being brought once Trump leaves the White House, either in two years or in six.

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