Donald Trump was hit with a remarkable double-blow on Tuesday: his former campaign manager was found guilty on eight counts of fraud, and his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, alleging the President himself had directed him to pay hush money to two women with whom he’d had affairs.
But will the blow prove crippling? In what is one of the most significant and potentially damning weeks of his Presidency, Trump’s future in the White House looks ever more uncertain.
But first, what exactly happened – and what does it all mean for Trump?
What Happened On Tuesday?
At almost exactly the same time, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, relating to the explosive story involving adult star, Stormy Daniels.
Both men face up to five years in jail.
The news hit Washington – and the rest of the world – like a bombshell. Even the normally restrained New York Times newspaper went “full banner” with a headline reading: “PLEADING GUILTY, COHEN IMPLICATES PRESIDENT”.
But as the news hit, Trump was in the air on the way to a rally – a trademark event he has continued since his bellicose presidential campaign. Appearing in West Virginia after news had broken, he was greeted by hundreds of supporters who appeared unfazed by the latest news.
According to reporters, the crowd, referencing his rival Hillary Clinton, chanted “lock her up” – just hours after Trump’s own former lawyer implicated him in a crime.
What Exactly Cohen Has Said About Trump
Cohen said in court that he made one payment “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and another “under direction of the same candidate”.
That candidate is Donald Trump, and what’s more, the amounts and dates line up with the payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, Reuters reports.
Speaking after the hearing, Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, rammed the point home. He said: “Today, [Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
Is The Net Closing In On Trump?
The list of people hired to work for Trump’s campaign team and administration, and who are now facing serious legal issues, totals six.
This includes his former National Security Advisor, his former campaign manager and two advisors.
Cohen’s case was conducted by prosecutors in New York, separate from the Robert Mueller investigation, a special counsel probe looking at collusion and Russian interference in the 2016 election that brought Trump to power.
Has Trump Himself Committed A Crime?
It is the Cohen case that places Trump in the most jeopardy, legal experts have said. The longtime personal “fixer” and friend has acknowledged his role in a scheme to pay off two women.
“It’s going to be hard for the President to try to discredit all this. It’s circling him,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor.
Daniel Petalas, former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, said the issue of whether Trump violated the law comes down to whether the then-presidential candidate “tried to influence an election, whether he knew and directed it and whether he knew it was improper”.
Cohen’s remarks made in court suggest the payments to Daniels were made in the run-up to the election in order to avoid any negative fallout that could hurt his chances of winning the presidency.
What Does This Have To Do With The Russia Investigation?
Only the Manafort trial is being conducted by Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and the charges he was found guilty of all pre-date his work with the Trump campaign.
But the verdict is partly a vindication of the probe and gives it huge momentum in securing the biggest prize – an interview with the President under oath.
As for the Cohen case, while it was conducted by prosecutors in New York, it will likely boost the Mueller investigation.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has argued that Cohen’s plea undermines the argument that the investigations swirling around Trump are a “witch hunt”, as the President has called often described the Russia investigation.
Mueller is not just looking into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. His team is also examining whether or not the President attempted to obstruct justice – an impeachable crime – when he fired former FBI Director, James Comey.
What Is Impeachment And Why Is It Significant?
Impeachment is the process of formally levelling charges against the President. It does not automatically mean they are removed from office.
Impeachable crimes in the US include “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”, a rather ambiguous term that has previously been defined as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”.
Impeachment proceedings could begin if Democrats win back control of the House of Representatives in November’s mid-term elections.
But completing the process is a lengthy and difficult, and a successful vote in the House would trigger a full trial in the Senate. This in turn would require a two-thirds “super-majority” of senators to force Trump from office.
It has never happened before.
What Has Trump Said So Far?
Unusually for the President, very little. Trump arrived in West Virginia for a rally after the news broke and briefly addressed the verdict in the Manafort case, telling reporters: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. It has nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with Russia collusion, it’s a disgrace.”
UPDATE: Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning to claim Cohen was not guilty of an actual crime and to highlight the ten charges Manafort was not convicted of.
He was convicted of eight other charges though.
What Has His Team Said?
Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani said in a statement: “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
So What Happens Next?
Cohen and Manfort face sentencing and then a likely appeal process.
As for Trump, the big ongoing question is whether or not he is interviewed by the Mueller investigation or made to provide testimony in a lawsuit filed by Stormy Daniels to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement about the payment she signed ahead of the 2016 election.
Daniels’ lawyer tweeted he would push for such a move and make all findings public.
Could Trump Pardon Manafort – Or Himself?
The President pardoning himself sounds ridiculous but last year it was reported his legal team were looking into the legalities of him pardoning both himself and his family in the event of the Russia probe finding anything incriminating.
Trump has already liberally used his pardon power, most notably on a controversial former Arizona sheriff who clashed with a judge on immigration and a Bush administration official convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in a leak case.
But the Attorney General for New York, Zephyr Teachout, indicated in the case of Manafort a pardon would be far less straightforward.
She wrote: “If Donald Trump pardons Manafort, the federal pardon would not cover state crimes. As AG (attorney general) of New York, I will investigate and pursue any state law violations to be ready for Trump trying to protect himself with a pardon. We have to be totally clear that no one is above the law.”
As for Cohen, his lawyer said on Wednesday he is "dedicated to telling the truth" and would not accept a pardon.
And the idea that Trump could somehow pardon himself, has simply never come up before in US history.
But then, neither has a President like Donald J Trump.