Donald Trump: 'worst hour' for president as Manafort and Cohen guilty

David Smith in Washington DC, Tom McCarthy in New York, Ben Jacobs in Virginia and Kevin Rawlinson
‘These are witch hunts and it’s a disgrace,’ Trump told reporters in Charleston on Tuesday night. Composite: AP/Reuters

Donald Trump has suffered a huge double blow after one of his former associates pleaded guilty and another was convicted of financial crimes, potentially leaving the president himself in legal jeopardy.

Michael Cohen, his longtime lawyer and “fixer”, pleaded guilty to eight charges including campaign finance violations and directly implicated Trump in paying “hush money” to women with whom he allegedly had affairs.

Just minutes earlier, Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, was convicted on eight charges of bank and tax fraud. The dual courtroom dramas set up a moment of rare peril for the president.

“This is the worst hour of Trump’s entire presidency – no, make that entire life,” tweeted Norman Eisen, a former special counsel to President Barack Obama for ethics and government reform.

The outcomes also raised grave questions about Trump’s judgment. Since his election, his national security adviser, personal lawyer, campaign chairman, deputy campaign manager and a foreign policy aide have all admitted or been convicted of crimes.

The cases arose from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Tuesday’s events represent a significant victory for Mueller, who has been under pressure from Trump’s supporters to wind up what the president calls a “witch hunt”.

In New York, Cohen claimed Trump directed him to make payments that violated campaign finance laws in an effort to stop Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actor, and Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model, going public about alleged extramarital affairs. In entering the plea, Cohen did not name the two women, nor Trump.

Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, asked in a tweet: “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Whether or when a president can be prosecuted remains a matter of legal dispute. Trump has denied any knowledge of the payments at the time they were made.

The disclosure was made as Cohen, once loyal to Trump, pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations in a deal reached with federal prosecutors. He could get about four to five years in prison at sentencing on 12 December.

Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, said on Tuesday night that Mr Cohen was open to talking to Robert Mueller for his investigation, telling MSNBC: “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 told MSNBC Cohen had knowledge of “the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election” as well as “knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr Trump knew ahead of time about that crime.”

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Virginia, after the fourth day of jury deliberation, Manafort was found guilty of bank fraud, tax fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account. The charges carry a maximum sentence of decades in prison. He avoided conviction on some charges, however, with the jury saying it could not reach a consensus on 10 out of 18 total counts.

Manafort faces additional charges in a separate case, to convene in Washington DC next month.

In Charleston, West Virginia, arriving for a rally on Tuesday night, Trump told reporters: “This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. These are witch hunts and it’s a disgrace.”

Despite his conviction on federal charges, Trump called Manafort a “good man”, adding: “He was with Ronald Reagan, he was with a lot of people.”

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, claimed the government’s charges against Cohen contained “no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president”, Reuters reported.

Democrats sought to pile political pressure on Donald Trump after the news broke, with the party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, denouncing the “rampant corruption and criminality at the heart of Trump’s inner circle”.

She said: “Cohen’s admission of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money ‘at the direction of the candidate’ to influence the 2016 election shows the president’s claims of ignorance to be far from accurate, and places him in even greater legal jeopardy.”

Pelosi also sought to place pressure on Trump’s Republican colleagues, whom she accused of propping him up. “Congressional Republicans’ determination to cover up for the president and his criminal cronies betrays their oath of office and undermines their duty to the American people.

“House Republicans must abandon their complicity with president Trump and affirm that no one is above the law.”

Pelosi also praised the work of Mueller, saying the convictions were proof that he and his team were “conducting thorough and professional investigations, which must be permitted to continue free from interference”.

Pelosi added: “The Trump administration and Congressional Republicans’ unprecedented culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence is characteristic of the dysfunctional political system in Washington.”

A spokesperson for Paul Ryan, the Republican House speaker, said: “We are aware of Mr Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point.”

Robert Khuzami, the prosecutor and deputy US attorney, said Michael Cohen would pay a “very, very serious price” for his crimes.

Speaking to reporters outside the court in Manhattan, Khuzami listed Cohen’s admissions in detail. “These are very serious charges and reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant a period of time. They are particularly significant when done by a lawyer; a lawyer who, through training and tradition, understands what it means to be a lawyer who upholds honest and fair dealing and adherence to the law.”

Khuzami said that Cohen had believed himself above the law.

Speaking after the news broke, Stormy Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said Cohen’s guilty plea should lead to Trump being questioned about “what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it”.

Daniels said she and Avenatti felt vindicated and look forward to apologies “from the people who claimed we were wrong”.

At his trial in Virginia, Manafort stood stony-faced as he was found guilty on the eight counts, but winked at his wife, Kathleen, upon leaving the courtroom. He appeared weathered by his time in jail. His tan had faded, and his hair had greyed.

Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, told reporters that his client is now “evaluating all of his options”. Downing also said that his client was “disappointed of not getting acquittals all the way through or a complete hung jury on all counts”.

The jury returned the verdicts on its fourth day of deliberation. Afterwards, federal judge TS Ellis III urged the jury not to share their deliberations with others, saying they owed a “duty of confidentiality” to their fellow jurors. Ellis praised both government and Manafort attorneys for their “effective and zealous representations”.

The Virginia trial did not delve into the nature of Trump campaign contacts with Russia, which is the focus of the Mueller investigation. But the conviction of a figure as prominent as Manafort, who ran the Trump campaign for a crucial five-month period in 2016, was a blow to the White House and a boost for the special counsel, which continues to investigate the Trump campaign.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Manafort had lied in seeking personal loans and lied to the Internal Revenue Service in reporting income related to his political consulting work in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The defense argued that the prosecution had failed to prove that the banks acted on false information allegedly submitted by Manafort and attacked the credibility of former Manafort protégé Rick Gates, the government’s key witness.

Gates testified that Manafort had asked him to help falsify banking and tax records and knowingly submitted those records. Manafort conducted various frauds, prosecutors charged, to fund lavish lifestyle items from coastal real estate to bespoke suits to a $15,000 ostrich jacket.

The prospect of finishing his days in prison represented an astounding downfall for Manafort, a valued adviser to Republican presidents going back to Gerald Ford, and once a top Washington lobbyist and power broker.

In a further blow to Trump on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice announced that Duncan Hunter, the second member of Congress to endorse the president, had been indicted on charges of using campaign funds for personal ends, along with his wife, Margaret.

Trump’s first congressional backer, Chris Collins, was indicted on insider trading charges about two weeks ago.

Referring to the Hunters, the Department of Justice said: “A 48-page indictment details scores of instances beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016 in which the Hunters illegally used campaign money to pay for personal expenses that they could not otherwise afford.

“The purchases included family vacations to Italy, Hawaii, Phoenix, Arizona, and Boise, Idaho; school tuition; dental work; theatre tickets; and domestic and international travel for almost a dozen relatives.

“The Hunters also spent tens of thousands of dollars on smaller purchases, including fast food, movie tickets, golf outings, video games, coffee, groceries, home utilities, and expensive meals.”

They are scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday.