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Dispatches: Breaking Down the Implications of the Cohen and Manafort Criminal Cases

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.
Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse after being charged on October 30th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse after being charged on October 30th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump's legal problems reached new heights this week. On Tuesday, Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of bank and tax fraud, becoming another member in a line of former Trump affiliates with a criminal conviction. That same day, in New York, Michael Cohen, the president's former personal lawyer, admitted to making payments to two women during the 2016 campaign "at the direction of the candidate" while pleading guilty to campaign finance violations. As the New York Times reports, Cohen said Trump directed him to make the payments "for the principal purpose of influencing the election."

Two Strikes
With Cohen facing up to 10 years in prison, and Manafort turned against him, Trump may finally be forced to confront the investigation he's repeatedly labeled a "witch hunt." Associate editor Rebecca Worby spoke with three legal experts who said Cohen's guilty plea could open the president up to liability; if Cohen's allegations are true, and Trump knew the payments were campaign-related, "then Trump too violated campaign finance law," Michael S. Kang, a law professor at Northwestern University, told Worby for Cohen is not yet a cooperating witness, according to his plea agreement, but NPR reports that a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller is possible—and Cohen may have another story to tell.

Manafort, on the other hand, faces another trial in Washington, D.C., over separate charges, as well as a possible mistrial for the 10 remaining charges in his first conviction, which might have stuck if not for a lone holdout juror, the Hill reports. Unlike Cohen, Manafort is more likely to remain loyal to the president in hopes of a pardon, NPR reports. According to the Hill, some Senate Republicans have already come out against this possibility, and that pardoning Manafort might be considered obstruction of justice. Dissent from within his own party has not stopped Trump from giving pardons in the past, however, and the president refused to rule out the possibility on Fox News this week.

Cohen’s admission could make the president an unindicted co-conspirator, the same position former President Richard Nixon found himself in during Watergate. Normally, as the Times reported on The Daily, an investigator would want to go after the candidate at the head of such violations. But since that candidate is now a sitting president, the conventional position for the Department of Justice would be not to indict. As contributing writer Jared Keller noted in a piece on this week, the political climate has changed drastically since Nixon, and strong partisanship in the House of Representatives, along with Trump's vehement attacks on the media, may now neutralize the threat of impeachment. But other experts like University of Chicago legal professor Eric Posner, who spoke with Pacific Standard senior staff writer Tom Jacobs several months ago, disagree with this assessment and note that Mueller does indeed have the power to indict the president. Regardless of these debates, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren have already politicized Republicans' potential crimes, the Washington Post reports, launching new anti-corruption legislation. Meanwhile, although none of the crimes have been linked to Russia, NPR reports, these convictions may signal further discoveries from Mueller's investigation.

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