The convictions of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have led many of Trump’s media and political foes to declare the beginning of the end. Yahoo News correspondent and “Russian Roulette” co-author Michael Isikoff joins TRNN’s Aaron Maté to discuss
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
Many prominent media and political voices say it’s the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. On Tuesday, both Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his former fixer Michael Cohen were convicted on eight counts each. Manafort was convicted in a jury trial in Virginia, while Cohen was convicted in a plea deal with New York prosecutors. Both were found guilty of bank fraud and tax evasion. Cohen added on a campaign finance violation in which he directly implicated President Trump for payoffs to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. Now, none of these guilty counts are directly related to the issue that has engulfed Trump’s presidency: Allegations of a conspiracy with the Russian government. But Michael Cohen’s personal attorney Lanny Davis has strongly hinted that that may change. Speaking on MSNBC, Davis suggested that Cohen knows of some explosive information.
LANNY DAVIS: I can tell you that 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. Not just about the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election, which the Trump Tower meeting was all about, but also 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. We know he publicly cheered it on, but did he also have private information.
AARON MATE: The convictions of Manafort and Cohen aren’t the only big development. Just days before, Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued the sentencing memo for George Papadopoulos. He is the former Trump campaign volunteer who reportedly sparked the entire Trump-Russia probe to begin with. Muller says Papadopoulos did not provide substantial assistance, and has recommended a sentence of between zero to six months.
So there’s a lot going on with Russiagate, and joining me is someone who has been on this beat from the start. Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, co-author of the bestselling book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Welcome, Michael.
A lot to talk about. I want to get to what Lanny Davis said there about- or hinted there about potential Russian collusion in a second. But first I want to talk about what is actually concrete in Tuesday’s developments when it comes to implicating Donald Trump. And that is Michael Cohen admitting in court to a campaign- what he says a campaign finance violation, in which Trump directed him to pay off these two women with whom he allegedly had an affair. Your sense of this. I mean, A, do you think that Cohen can prove it? And if he does, does that amount to a serious problem for Donald Trump?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Look, the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York accepted his guilty plea in the court documents. They say that he arranged this, these two illegal payments in coordination with one or more members of the Trump campaign. And those members are not identified, but then Cohen in his colloquy with the judge said he acted to make these payments at the direction of Donald Trump. So as far as the proof goes, the proof was strong enough for the prosecutors in the Southern District to accept that guilty plea. And they did say that what Michael Cohen was pleading to was buttressed by the documents they got in the search of Michael Cohen’s office and computer, with e-mails, text messages, and other communications. So it sounds like they’ve got the evidence to back up what Michael Cohen had pled to.
So I think we have to sort of accept that, absent some- obviously we would want to see more, and it would be great if they had laid out some of that evidence. But at this point they accepted it. The Trump Sessions Justice Department, which would have had to review this guilty plea, accepted it. And Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime lawyer, pled to it.
As for where it goes from here, that is an intriguing question. Because what Michael Cohen described to the judge, and what was outlined in the court papers, did sound very much like conspiracy or collusion, if you will, to violate federal campaign laws. Anybody short of the president who was part of that conspiracy would be liable for additional charges. One can think of, say, American Media, the company that owns National Enquirer as well as David Pecker, its chief executive-.
AARON MATE: Who paid to have Karen McDougal’s story and then not run it.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. Right. That was the Karen McDougal matter. As far as the President himself, it is, seems to be that the Justice Department, no surprise, is going to adhere to standard policy as articulated years ago by its Office of Legal Counsel that you can’t indict a sitting president. But that may not be the end of this. An indictment could be returned that would not be unsealed or prosecuted or pursued until after the president leaves office. That’s one option. And then of course there’s the political option of the impeachment process, and whether this could become a part of the articles of impeachment brought by the House, if the Democrats get back control the House. There are a whole bunch of issues we can talk about on that score. But those are certainly both options on the table in light of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea.
AARON MATE: Trump in his defense today on Twitter said that Obama also faced FEC violations in the 2008 campaign. Something about the Democrats concealing some some donations in the final months of the campaign. So interesting that Trump tried to defend himself.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I mean, look, there are campaign violations that are handled by, through audits, through fines. Those are pretty much routine. And I think if you look back, almost every presidential campaign over the last few decades has been cited by the FEC for some sort of technical violation.
But there are also criminal violations that are prosecuted by the Justice Department. I mean, we had an indictment the same day against the Congressman Duncan Hunter, which were violations of federal campaign laws. So it is not unusual for the Justice Department to bring felony prosecutions when the matters are viewed as serious enough. And clearly in this case they were.
AARON MATE: One thing is for certain: That Trump has publicly denied being involved in the Stormy Daniels payments. So if Cohen can prove that Trump directed Cohen to make those payments, then Trump will have been caught in a public lie. But of course, that would not have been for the first time. Let me go to another issue, though, that Lanny Davis, Cohen’s personal attorney has raised, which is the possibility that Cohen might be able to cooperate with Mueller. We heard what Lanny Davis said before, hinting that Cohen might have some information, though I have to note I think that his statement contained a lot of qualifiers. He used the word ‘possible,’ and everything was qualified, I think, in a very suspicious way.
And let me also play for you what Lanny Davis then said today speaking to Morning Joe on MSNBC, when he was asked about what stirred Michael Cohen to change his mind. Because just recently he was denying even that the Stormy Daniels payments had anything to do with the campaign. So this is what Lanny Davis said about Cohen’s change of heart.
LANNY DAVIS: I can tell you that Helsinki was a significant turning point, as he worried about the future of our country with the president of the United States aligning with somebody who everybody in his intelligence community who he appointed, including Dan Coats, said that Putin interfered and tried to help Trump get elected. And Trump is the only one left denying that. And that shook up Mr.-.
AARON MATE: So that’s Lanny Davis speaking to MSNBC. So Michael, I have to admit my bias here. I’ve never trusted Lanny Davis. He is a longtime political operative. Clinton family loyalist. He’s worked with some shady characters in Honduras and Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast, human rights violators. And this idea that all of a sudden that Michael Cohen had a change of heart because of what he saw in Helsinki, after previously, you know, testifying to the Senate that he never saw evidence of collusion, I don’t quite buy that. What’s your take?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, I should tell you, I had a exchange with Lanny Davis on this very issue a couple of hours ago for my own podcast with Dan Klaidman, Skullduggery. We’ll be posting that Friday morning. But I think you’ll see it might eliminate further some of what Lanny Davis is saying.
But you know, bottom line, you’re absolutely right to be at least somewhat skeptical at this point. We don’t know exactly what Michael Cohen is now saying. We do know exactly what he said when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee back in September of last year. So nearly a year ago. And I just happen to have that, so I’ll read you the line. “Given my own,” and this is Michael Cohen in his statement to the Senate, “Given my own proximity to the president as a candidate, let me also say that I never saw anything, not a hint of anything, that demonstrated his,” Donald Trump’s, “involvement in Russian interference in our election, or any form of Russian collusion.”.
Now, of course, at that point Michael Cohen was playing the role of loyalist and personal attorney for the president. He was doing everything he could to defend the president, and he was sticking to that. But that was a statement to the Congress. And as you know, anybody who lies to the Congress is making a false statement and can be prosecuted for that. So one question that I think could be asked is is Michael Cohen prepared to cop to further federal felonies in order to deliver the testimony that Lanny Davis is hinting that he has to give about Russian collusion?
AARON MATE: Exactly. And it’s worth stressing there that everything we’ve heard about Cohen possibly cooperating with Mueller when it comes to collusion has come from this innuendo from people like Lanny Davis or from anonymous leaks. Nothing on the record for Michael Cohen himself. And in fact, the Senate Intel chairs, Mark Warner and Richard Burr, they say that they recently contacted Cohen in light of the anonymous source news reports that came out recently about what he knew about potential collusion, and they were told by Cohen’s legal team, apparently, that Cohen stands by his testimony. So we’ll see if that continues to be-
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. And on Skullduggery I asked Lanny Davis about that seeming contradiction. And Friday morning when we post it you’ll-
AARON MATE: I can’t wait to listen.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You’ll be able to hear for yourself. But look, there’s a lot of really odd things about what’s going on with Cohen right now. If you listen to everything Lanny Davis had to say during that Rachel Maddow interview the other night, it was almost as though he were pleading for Robert Mueller to take Michael Cohen’s testimony. And frankly, it sounded to me like Mueller wasn’t returning Lanny’s phone calls. Which I find puzzling, because I would think if I were Mueller I would want to hear everything Cohen has to say, even if it is a backflip from where he was a year ago. You’d still want to know what he’s got, and what he has to say. So there’s a lot that’s strange. It’s also strange that Lanny Davis, as one of his lawyers, would be out there talking about this publicly, instead of quietly trying to cut a deal with prosecutors.
AARON MATE: Exactly. Which says to me that far from pleading for Mueller to interview Michael Cohen, what Lanny Davis is actually doing is pleading for donations for his new GoFundMe, which he set up just hours after that Rachel Maddow interview. Rachel Maddow, of course, broadcasting to a very riled up base that wants to see Trump gotten on this Trump-Russia issue. So they’re now raising, they’re now trying to raise $500,000 for Michael Cohen, who is a millionaire, going towards his legal fees, which I presume Lanny Davis might see a cut of.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: OK. I doubt Michael Cohen is going to be a millionaire when the process is through. These legal fees do add up. My only cautionary note here is there’s clearly a lot we don’t know about where things stand with the Mueller investigation, with the the Cohen guilty plea came about, what other evidence is out there. So we can speculate. And your speculation is as good as mine. But you know, I do my own reporting, and I read very closely what my very able, plugged-in colleagues write on these matters. And I think it’s fair to say almost all of us are- if not all of us- in the press are in the dark about some very key matters relating to these investigations.
AARON MATE: All right. We’ll pause there and come back in Part w and talk about Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos. My guest is Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, co-author of the bestselling book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.