Tuesday afternoon saw two legal developments in rapid succession put the White House on the defensive, as the president’s former campaign manager and longtime personal lawyer both officially became felons.
Paul Manafort, who was brought onboard President Trump’s 2016 election campaign to act as campaign manager in the lead up to the Republican National Convention, was found guilty of eight counts of fraud. The jury deliberated on a total of 18 counts of various charges.
The indictment came as part of an ongoing special counsel investigation into whether the campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election. Manafort was singled out by Special Counsel Robert Meuller’s team in part due to his ties to Kremlin-linked Russian business people and his role working on behalf of pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
Moments before the verdict was announced in Virginia, Trump’s ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen, entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors in New York, claiming he had violated campaign finance laws under the direction of Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Despite initial denials from Cohen and Trump, the attorney now says that the president was aware of a US$130,000 payment to porn star Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, which was made to keep word of an affair under wraps in the run-up to the election.
Following the news, Trump spoke to reporters on the Manafort verdict.
“This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump said en route to a campaign rally in West Virginia. “It’s a witch hunt and a disgrace.”
“Doesn’t involve me but I still feel, you know, it’s a very sad thing that happened,” he stressed. “This has nothing to do what they started out looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none.”
Democratic lawmakers were quick to paint the events as having everything to do with Trump.
“The conviction of Paul Manafort on multiple felony charges of bank and tax fraud marks a major turning point in the special counsel’s ongoing investigation, and shows again that the President’s campaign was populated by individuals with a history of unscrupulous and dishonest business dealings and concerning ties to overseas interests,” ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff said in a statement.
“Michael Cohen’s almost simultaneous guilty plea to felony counts of tax fraud and bank fraud, and campaign finance violations involving the payment of hush money to women alleged to have had affairs with Trump is yet another set of convictions of the President’s inner circle,” Schiff added.
The conviction of Manafort has led to questions about whether he will seek to cooperate with the special counsel in exchange for leniency, whether he has any information that investigators would want, and whether the president will pardon him either way.