Special Counsel Robert Mueller claimed two of his biggest scalps on Tuesday: Those belonging to longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen and the president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
In just one hour, both men became felons, with Cohen pleading guilty to eight counts and Manafort being convicted by a federal jury. The two developments present Trump with varying degrees of legal danger, according to a handful of players involved in the saga of the Russia investigation.
“Cohen’s plea poses a more serious threat because of the information he has,” Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Stephanie Clifford (AKA Stormy Daniels) in lawsuits against Cohen and Trump, told Observer.
As far back as May, Avenatti anticipated that Cohen would cooperate with law enforcement by providing information that could be damaging to the president. These suspicions were confirmed when Cohen broke entirely with the White House last month by releasing secretly-recorded audio between himself and Trump. In court on Tuesday, Cohen told a federal judge that he facilitated a $130,000 hush payment to Clifford “at the direction of” the former candidate “for the principle purpose of influencing the [2016 presidential] election.”
“The Cohen plea presents more of a danger because he implicates Trump in his plea,” reiterated Sarah Longwell, a spokesperson for the Never Trump conservative group Republicans for the Rule of Law. “[Manafort] was Trump’s campaign manager and was obviously connected to the campaign, but it’s not the same as what Cohen came forward with, which was a direct implication that he was told to do something illegal.”
Michael Caputo, a former Trump communications advisor now working alongside Steve Bannon on Citizens for the American Republic, also pointed to Cohen’s guilty plea as more damaging—but from a public relations standpoint.
“It’s not a good day for the president, regardless of what you think of the Special Counsel’s strategy here,” Caputo told Observer. “The Manafort verdict doesn’t even involve the president, but the Cohen news creates at least a big story that won’t go away for a while.”
Sam Nunberg, another of the president’s former aides working on Bannon’s pro-Trump messaging group, said that neither of the courtroom outcomes posed any problems to the president. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who occasionally speaks with Trump about his populist platform, echoed these sentiments.
“Neither one have anything to do with the president, but both make Mueller look bad [for] obsessively looking for any legal violations by anyone connected to Trump, no matter how far removed from the campaign, much less Trump himself,” Coulter told Observer in an email.
Although Cohen’s plea was seen as the greater threat to Trump by political operatives, a former federal litigator warned that the possibility of Manafort cooperating with prosecutors should not be ruled out.
“I would say the Manafort verdict would pose more peril to the president, and the reason is because the pressure on Manafort to now flip is extraordinary,” Andrew Stoltmann, an attorney president of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, told Observer. “Manafort is the one, who in theory depending on what transpired, could give prosecutors a roadmap to collusion and obstruction of justice charges. And that’s the real peril that President Trump faces, not campaign finance violations.”
Stoltmann explained that campaign finance violations have historically been rectified with a civil fine and an administrative penalty.
“I don’t think Manafort has additional and new information, but I do think he can corroborate information Mueller already has,” added the attorney. “And that makes him extraordinarily powerful if he flips.”