Monday’s FBI raids on Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room are the clearest sign yet that the president’s longtime attorney is in serious legal jeopardy. They also represent yet another threatening development facing Donald Trump after more than a year of investigations into his campaign and presidency—perhaps the most direct danger yet.
No wonder he’s lashing out wildly—calling the raids “a disgraceful situation” and, absurdly, “an attack on our country.”
The evidence sought by investigators reportedly relates to bank fraud and campaign finance violations, both of which primarily point to one thing. Cohen apparently used a home equity credit line to borrow the $130,000 he paid Stormy Daniels for her silence just weeks before the 2016 election. If Cohen lied to obtain credit from a federally insured financial institution, that is a felony punishable by up to 30 years’ imprisonment. And because the payment was likely an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign, it could constitute a willful violation of campaign contribution limits, a separate felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
That the investigation of Cohen was apparently referred by special counsel Robert Mueller to the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York—a Trump appointee—is an early indication that at this point, the matter is not directly related to the Russia investigation. But that doesn’t mean Trump’s exposure is any less serious. Cohen knows where the LLCs are hidden. He’s been at the center of Trump’s financial universe for decades. If he is as exposed as he seems on the Daniels payment, one wonders what information he might be able to offer prosecutors—including Mueller—in exchange for a deal.
In addition, while the guilty pleas of Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, deputy campaign chair Rick Gates, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn were all significant, none of them directly jeopardized the president the way a Cohen deal would. If the FBI seized evidence showing that Trump directed Cohen’s payment to Daniels, Trump may also have committed a felony violation of campaign finance law. If Cohen and Trump worked together to come up with the scheme, they might also both be guilty of conspiring to commit a campaign finance violation. And if Trump (notwithstanding his recent denial) actually knew that he was the beneficiary of the nondisclosure agreement, he might be guilty of a separate offense—failing to report that asset on his personal financial disclosure form.
The president seemed to recognize the seriousness of the development immediately. He launched one of his most predictable and worrying tirades yet. In addition to blaming the Cohen raids on his political opponents and berating Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his recusal from the Russia investigation, Trump floated the possibility of firing Mueller (who ironically acted exactly as Trump would have wanted him to and referred allegations potentially outside of his scope to another prosecutor rather than expanding the scope of his own investigation).
We of course know that this possibility is not just theoretical. Recall that last June, according to The New York Times, Trump ordered that Mueller be fired before backing off when White House counsel Don McGahn refused to carry out the command. Trump has also previously secured the resignation of Attorney General Sessions, only to be persuaded to undo it by former chief of staff Reince Priebus.
That the president of the United States is one file cabinet of seized evidence away from possible exposure to a felony charge is a remarkable thing. That the facts giving rise to such a possibility have nothing to do with obstruction of justice or the various crimes that might fall under the “collusion” umbrella is even more noteworthy given the dizzying speed at which Mueller has proceeded. If Mueller referred this matter, one wonders whether he caught Cohen in any Russia-related malfeasance and whether Trump was involved.
For Trump, then, the trouble is that even if he is able to weather this particular storm, the roof shielding him may be blown away in the process.
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