Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign chairman Paul Manafort convicted of financial crimes

'If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?'

Wednesday 22 August 2018 19:38
Press conference following Michael Cohen's charge with campaign finance violations, fraud and tax evasion

Donald Trump has been dragged further into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe after two former aides were convicted of fraud on the same day – with the president’s former personal lawyer implicating him over campaign finance violations.

Within the space on an hour on Tuesday afternoon Mr Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud by a jury in Alexandria, Virginia.

However, the judge declared a mistrial over the 10 other charges Mr Manafort faced with the jurors unable to come to a decision.

Meanwhile, in New York, Mr Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of his own, including campaign finance violations ahead of the 2016 presidential election as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Mr Cohen, one of Mr Trump’s closest associates for more than a decade, said he arranged to make payments “for [the] principal purpose of influencing the election” at the direction of a “candidate” for federal office. He did not give the candidate’s name, although he was working for Mr Trump at the time.

The 51-year-old told the judge in the Manhattan courtroom that he was aware of what he was doing before pleading guilty to the charges, admitting that he worked “at the direction of candidate” when he attempted to buy the silence of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate who has claimed she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2016.

Mr Cohen also admitted that he worked “with and at the direction of the same candidate” to deliver a $130,000 (£100,000) payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to silence her claims about an affair.

Mr Cohen’s lawyer made the implication clear outside court. “Today he 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,” Lanny Davis said in a statement.

“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” he said.

Mr Cohen also pleaded guilty to five counts of tax fraud and one count of making false statements to a financial institution. The plea deal includes a possible sentence of up to five years and three months in prison. Sentencing has been set for December with Mr Cohen granted $500,000 bail.

Mr Trump ignored questions about Mr Cohen as he arrived on Tuesday evening for a pre-scheduled rally in West Virginia. The White House also declined to comment.

At Mr Manafort’s trial, the jury returned the decision after deliberating four days on tax and bank fraud charges. They found guilty of five counts of filing false tax returns on tens of millions of dollars in Ukrainian political consulting income.

He was also convicted of failing to report foreign bank accounts in 2012 and of two bank fraud charges that accused him of lying to obtain millions of dollars in loans after his consulting income dried up.

The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on three other foreign bank account charges, and the remaining bank fraud and conspiracy counts.

The one-two punch is a big blow to Mr Trump who has derided Mr Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with Trump campaign officials as a “witch hunt”.

While Mr Manafort’s charges did not relate to collusion, it is a win for Mr Mueller in the first case connected to the probe to go to trial. Mr Cohen’s charges related to a separate investigation in New York, that was passed that way by Mr Mueller.

Mr Trump called Mr Manafort’s conviction a “disgrace” as he arrived at a rally in West Virginia. “It’s a very sad thing that happened,” he told reporters, adding that it had “nothing to do with Russian collusion”.

His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani said of the Cohen plea: “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr Cohen.”

Mr Manafort’s conviction brought the number of former Trump advisers who have pleaded to or been found guilty of crimes in the Mueller investigation to four.

Last year former national security adviser and Trump campaign surrogate Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential transition and his Turkish lobbying work.

Under federal guidelines, his sentence is thought likely to be up to six months in prison.

George Papadopoulos, who advised Mr Trump on foreign policy, also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of meetings with alleged go-betweens for Russia. After initially claiming otherwise, he later admitted that they took place while he worked for Mr Trump.

Last week Mr Mueller recommended a prison sentence of up to six months for him, claiming that his “false statements were intended to harm the investigation, and did so”.

Democrats were quick to shoot down suggestions that Mr Trump could issue a presidential pardon for Mr Cohen and Mr Manafort.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said: “He better not talk about pardons for Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort tonight, or any other time in the future.”

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