Michael Cohen once boasted he’d take a bullet for his former boss, Donald Trump.
Now, he’s firing the shots.
Cohen’s dramatic guilty plea in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, followed by a media blitz by his attorney, Lanny Davis, have dragged President Trump directly into a spiraling criminal investigation. And things may be about to get much worse for the embattled president if his former personal attorney and self-styled “fixer” follows through with telling investigators everything he knows, legal experts and close observers of the case told VICE News.
“The Cohen situation is a disaster for Trump,” said Jens David Ohlin, Cornell Law vice dean. “For the first time, prosecutors have a case that touches Trump personally rather than just his inner circle.”
Cohen has yet to sign an agreement to cooperate with investigators, but he's showing signs that it's only a matter of time. And if/when that time comes, Trump has even more to worry about, say former prosecutors and defense attorneys. Especially when it comes to what Cohen could offer special counsel Robert Mueller.
With Trump’s presidency hanging in the balance, here’s why Cohen’s renegade turn poses a massive threat.
Trading dirt on Trump
On Tuesday, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, including two of violating campaign finance laws by orchestrating hush-money payments to women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump.
Notably, neither the prosecution’s charging document nor Cohen’s written plea agreement specifies that Trump was involved in directing that payment.
“He may be facing criminal exposure as a result.”
Instead, Cohen himself strongly suggested Trump was involved— in a revealing sign of his willingness to blast the president with both barrels, according to Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor with the Southern District of New York turned white-collar defense attorney.
On Tuesday, Cohen told Judge William H. Pauley that he organized the payments “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
“The fact that Cohen specifies that it’s 'the candidate’ signals that he’s saying, ‘I have information about Trump, and I want to use it,’” Sandick told VICE News. “The charging document just says that he coordinated with people on the campaign, which doesn’t have to mean Trump. It could have been someone else.”
Cohen’s statement could mean legal trouble for Trump, agreed Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor.
“Cohen’s plea identified Trump as the person who directed Cohen to violate campaign finance laws,” McQuade said. “He may be facing criminal exposure as a result.”
In addition to the rules limiting donations to campaigns, an agreement between two or more people to break the law is also the crime of “conspiracy,” which could be relevant in this case, legal observers said.
“Cohen’s testimony, combined with his audio recordings, place Trump in jeopardy of not just a campaign finance violation but also a federal conspiracy charge,” said Cornell’s Ohlin.
But prosecutors would need to prove Cohen’s suggestion that Trump was involved. And what’s more, existing Department of Justice policy suggests that a sitting president can’t be charged with a crime, Sandick said.
“There are at least two obvious limitations to bringing conspiracy charges against Trump,” Sandick said. “The first is: What corroboration is there for Cohen’s assertion that Trump was involved? And the second is the fact that Trump is the president of the United States.”
“Cohen’s testimony, combined with his audio recordings, place Trump in jeopardy of not just a campaign finance violation, but also a federal conspiracy charge.”
Sandick said Cohen’s statement may indicate that, for the moment, Cohen is willing to say things about Trump that prosecutors in the Southern District don’t yet believe they could prove.
The same may yet turn out to be true for the special counsel, in the event that Cohen divulges everything he knows about Trump’s ties to Russia.
Russia and the campaign
Appearing on "The Rachel Maddow" Show Tuesday evening, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis strongly suggested Cohen may reveal Trump had advance knowledge of a Russian cyber-campaign to interfere with the 2016 campaign — and that he’s willing to tell Mueller all about it.
“Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows,” Davis said.
Davis suggested Cohen may have “knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.”
Mueller’s team has already indicted a dozen Russian cyber-spies for hacking Democratic accounts, which resulted in data disclosures at the height of the 2016 campaign.
According to that indictment, the Russian spooks tried to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on July 27, 2016 — the same day Trump said, at a press conference: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Davis suggested Cohen may also be able to reveal new information about the infamous Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, when the top brass of the Trump campaign met with a Russian lawyer billed as bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Pressed on the details by Maddow, Davis declined to nail down specifics.
Cohen’s knowledge could feature in the Mueller probe by providing key insider testimony about whether anyone in the Trump campaign actively cooperated with Russian efforts to interfere in the election.
U.S. law forbids foreigners from spending money to influence a federal election. And experts have said that any American citizen who conspires or assists in that effort could be committing a crime as well.
The president's money
Cohen has signaled that he was refunded by Trump’s real estate company, the Trump Organization, for the payments to one of the women (who happens to match the description of adult film star Stormy Daniels).
That could open up legal exposure for the Trump Organization, too, observers told VICE News.
And after a decade at Trump’s side, Cohen might also know a lot more about untoward practices at the Trump Org, which did business all around the world, including in countries like Panama and India, which don’t exactly have tip-top scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to pay bribes to foreign government officials in exchange for business opportunities — and if Cohen has knowledge that anyone at the Trump Org did so, that could be a problem.
...The other women?
On Tuesday, Cohen pleaded guilty to helping arrange payments to two women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump right before the 2016 election: adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Those payments resulted in criminal charges because they constituted illegal campaign donations, according to court filings in Cohen’s case.
But Michael Avenatti, attorney for Stormy Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford), has said he’s been in contact with at least three more women who were paid off for their silence before the 2016 election.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen walks out of court in New York City, New York, U.S., August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY