File photo of US President Donald Trump. Photograph:( Reuters )
Donald Trump accused his former lawyer Michael Cohen Wednesday of making up "stories" to cut a plea deal, after the longtime fixer implicated him in campaign finance violations on perhaps the worst day of his tumultuous presidency.
The president's once close associate dealt him a bitter blow a day earlier as he admitted to a New York judge he had made illegal campaign contributions -- in the form of hush money for women alleging affairs with Trump -- with the then-Republican candidate as co-conspirator.
In a day of head-spinning political drama, Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort was found guilty within the same hour of tax and bank fraud by a Virginia jury, in the first case sent to trial by the special prosecutor probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
While the full implications for the Republican president remain unclear, Cohen's admission -- and the prospect of more dirt-spilling to come -- puts Trump in legal jeopardy, further emboldening his opponents as the country heads towards close-fought midterm elections in November.
Cohen's own lawyer, in a string of interviews early Wednesday, took aim at the president, dubbing him a "criminal."
"He committed a crime," Lanny Davis told CBS News. "If he were not president, he clearly would be indicted and jailed for that crime."
In practice, an indictment is highly unlikely: the Justice Department position since 2000 has been that a sitting president is "immune from indictment as well as from further criminal process."
And while the president could theoretically be impeached, it remains a remote prospect in a Republican-dominated Congress where even Democrats are focused on letting Robert Mueller's Russia probe play out in full.
But Cohen's cooperation with investigators may yet pose an untold threat.
'Not a crime'
Writing on the Lawfare blog, former White House counsel Bob Bauer argued that the Cohen campaign-finance plea will resonate "unmistakably" with Mueller's investigation, "which also concerns what a candidate is prepared to do to win an election and then cover his tracks."
"The similarities between Trump's problems and those of Richard Nixon continue to grow," Bauer wrote. "As Nixon found when one of his lawyers also became a witness for the government, this can be the beginning of very hard times."
Trump spent Tuesday cooped up in the White House as the high-profile cases reached their conclusion, but as the twin bombshell dropped he appeared to take it in stride.
Rallying supporters in West Virginia later that night, he made an oblique comment on Manafort and the Russia probe, asking "Where is the collusion?" Speaking to reporters he called the verdict "very sad."
But mostly he stuck to his playbook, riffing to a cheering crowd on the strength of the US economy, and went on business-as-usual to hold telephone talks on North Korea with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe.
Trump's first reaction to the Cohen plea deal, tweeted out early Wednesday, came in the form of a dismissive joke.
"If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!" Trump wrote.
He went on to assert that Cohen's campaign rule violations were "not a crime," while pointing to a campaign reporting violation settled by Barack Obama for $375,000 after the 2008 election.
And he sought to discredit Cohen -- contrasting his actions with those of Manafort, whom he called "such a brave man."
"Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal.'"
'Tell the truth'
Rather than cut a deal, the 69-year-old Manafort chose to leave his fate to a jury, prompting speculation he was hoping for a pardon -- something Trump has refused to rule out.
After four days of deliberations in the Washington suburbs, the former Trump campaign chairman was found guilty of five counts of making false income tax returns, two of bank fraud and one of failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts.
As Manafort learned of his fate, Cohen was appearing in a packed Manhattan courtroom to plead guilty to five counts of tax fraud, one of bank fraud and two counts of violating campaign finance laws.
Visibly crestfallen, the 51-year-old Cohen detailed how he made pre-election hush payments -- "with the purpose of influencing the election" --  to two women alleging affairs with Trump: the porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.
And the man who once said he would "take a bullet" for his boss, pointed to Trump as co-conspirator, alleging he acted "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office."
Cohen's lawyer Davis explained his client's about-face as "Michael fulfilling his promise ... to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump."