Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime public pitbull, famously declared that he would “take a bullet” for the president as a signal of his unbending loyalty. On Tuesday afternoon, the bullet came and Cohen largely ducked it.
Trump’s former personal attorney pleaded guilty to an array of federal criminal charges including bank fraud, tax fraud, and violations of campaign finance laws. But he also explained that he had violated the latter “in coordination and at the direction” of then-candidate Trump—though he refused to actually name his former boss—by arranging hush-money payments to two of the president’s alleged one-time mistresses.
It was a bombshell admission: the president implicated in a federal crime by his former lawyer. It was also a dramatic turn of fortunes for a man who once had visions of serving as Trump’s chief of staff inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and who had spent years at the president’s side. Inside Trump world—where fierce loyalty seems prized (but often not reciprocated) by the president—it left officials on edge. One source close familiar with the situation described it as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” a reference to the Spencer Tracy thriller about a mysterious stranger who finds himself in an increasingly, oddly hostile town.
Others were left searching for silver-linings and explanations.
“Well, this is just Michael Cohen fighting for his own tail because they got him for other issues,” former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a Trump surrogate and a friend of Cohen’s, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “[If there were] malpractice, it would be on [Michael] and not the president.”
“I’m still stunned by the reversal to the degree that Michael has so fervently denied any wrongdoing and that the payments had anything to do with the campaign,” Kingston continued. The former congressman speculated that this “could be what he had to offer up to the prosecution to lighten” the consequences.
The Trump presidency has been filled with moments that seemed bound to lead to his political downfall only to fade into the ether. Tuesday’s drama had a different, more ominous feel, if only for the rapidity of the damaging developments. Minutes after Cohen’s guilty plea, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, received a guilty verdict on eight counts of bank and tax fraud—another close associate facing time in jail. Moments later, it was reported that Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, had hosted the publisher of white nationalists at his home for his birthday celebration.
For the president’s hardcore supporters, the only silver lining was that none of the drama had anything to do directly with allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“Well now that didn’t go the way the Russia conspiracy fluffers hoped now, did it?” Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo emphasized in text messages with The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Oh the myriad expectations dashed, the coitus interruptus of the tinfoil hat set.”
But even Caputo conceded that Tuesday was “not a good day for the president… regardless of what you think of the Special Counsel’s strategy.”
While the IRS and the Tax Division at Justice Department headquarters signed off on the charges against Cohen, it remains possible for them to bleed into the Russia investigation too. The office of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing that inquiry, was consulted on the charges but did not formally have to sign off on them. More importantly, ex-federal prosecutors told The Daily Beast that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could still attempt to gain information from Cohen (should he deem it worthwhile to do so) in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Even on their own, however, the charges Cohen faces create clear legal and political problems for Trump. “Not only did Cohen make an excessive and unreported contribution to the campaign, the campaign also accepted an excessive contribution and failed to report it,” said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.
A seasoned Washington campaign finance attorney who spoke anonymously because of sensitivities related to his firm said the Cohen plea was a disaster for Trump.
“Right now, the president of the United States is an unindicted co-conspirator in two separate counts of conspiring to violate the Fed Election Campaign Act,” he said. “Nixon didn’t become an unindicted co-conspirator until he was in his second year of his second term. It’s Watergate on steroids. We’re going to do everything much faster.”
The legal controversy stemming from Cohen’s plea deal could even envelop Trump’s business empire, legal experts said, since Cohen admitted to filing falsified invoices with the Trump Organization in order to recoup the money he paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and playmate Karen McDougal. That effectively made the company a donor to the campaign, and corporations are legally barred from giving to federal political candidates.
“The Trump Organization could argue that the violation wasn’t knowing and willful—and therefore not criminal—because they were duped into reimbursing Cohen,” Brett Kappel, a campaign finance attorney who’s worked for both Democrats and Republicans, told The Daily Beast. “The Trump Organization’s CFO could be on the hook personally, however, if he approved the use of Trump Organization funds if he knew that they were being used to reimburse Cohen for his contribution—so a very bad day for Allen Weisselberg [the CFO].”
At a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday, and in remarks on the way there, Trump notably left the Cohen saga unmentioned. But, in the past, he has made abundantly clear his disdain for people he deems traitorous. Ruminating over the scandal that ensnared former presidential campaign John Edwards, Trump once said that the Senator’s affair was “bad” but that the actions of Edwards’ aide, Andrew Young, who ultimately refused to take the fall for the affair, was “worse.”
“Not only is [Young] a ‘rat’ but it turns out he stole much of the money for himself,” Trump tweeted in April 2012, in one of his several tweets about “rats.”
During the Obama administration, Trump criticized former Defense Secretary Bob Gates of being “one disloyal dude” after Gates published a book in which was critical of the president’s foreign policy team. And this past weekend, Trump tweeted that the “failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel [sic] Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel, he must be a John Dean type ‘RAT.’”
Dean, the White House Counsel during the Richard Nixon administration, famously testified about the coverup of the infamous Watergate burglary, ultimately facilitating Nixon’s downfall. He told The Daily Beast that he had never actually met Trump or had even indirect dealings with him.
“I do know people who know him but they have never had anything nice to say about him,” Dean added. “I think his feelings toward me are based on his admiration of Richard Nixon, who appears to be one of his role models!”
—With additional reporting by Harry Siegel