Trump's three-front legal war turns on sex, money and Russia

(CNN)A barrage of revelations and court gambits over the last 48 hours has left President Donald Trump and his shrinking legal team fighting an escalating battle on multiple fronts -- involving an explosive triumvirate of sex, Russia and money.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that one of the President's lawyers last year floated the possibility of pardons for two key targets of special counsel Robert Mueller: former top aides Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.
Meanwhile, Michael Avenatti, counsel for porn actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she had unprotected sex with the President, filed a defamation suit against Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, hoping to force the commander-in-chief himself into a perilous deposition under oath.
    And Trump's legal tangle became even more complicated when a federal judge gave the go-ahead to a lawsuit alleging that payments to his Washington hotel by foreign governments infringed the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
    The dizzying pace of developments was remarkable even for Trump, who has used litigation as a weapon for much of his career and been embroiled in hundreds of lawsuits. It raised a whole new batch of questions about what the President knew about the various legal fronts that are all but certain to further deepen the morass now facing the White House.

    Pardons and spies: New twists in the Russia probe

    The Times report potentially deepens the President's exposure to Mueller's investigation because it raises the issue of whether his lawyer, John Dowd, who recently resigned and who denied the report, was offering potential pardons to sway the two men against cooperating with the special counsel.
    A more fundamental question is why Trump's team could have been so concerned about what Manafort and Flynn might have to say about the President or his campaign.
    The report did not say whether Trump had discussed the pardons with Dowd before he allegedly brought them up with the lawyers for the other men. If the President had suggested pardons in order to thwart witness testimony or frustrate the Russia investigation, it would clearly be of interest to Mueller.
    "If the President was using his Constitutional authority to pardon in a way to interfere with the investigation of Robert Mueller to influence the testimony of prospective witnesses, that would clearly fit into the obstruction of justice statutes, the interference with the witness testifying statutes," said Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who is now a CNN legal analyst.
    If Dowd was working at the direction of the President, it would also raise the "prospect of an abuse of office and an impeachable offense," Zeldin told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
    Like many aspects of the Russia investigation, it is impossible to know exactly what the special counsel knows and what went on in private conversations. So the issues raised by the Times report will remain unanswered for now. What is known is that pardons were not given. Manafort is facing multiple charges related to his business affairs in Ukraine and Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with Mueller.
    The report is a reminder, however, that Trump has a number of options to ice the Mueller probe that do not include the nuclear option of trying to fire the special counsel. And the use of legal pardon powers could become a key issue down the road.
    The response of the White House to the Times report exemplified the challenge Trump's team faces in fighting off wave after wave of disclosures about the Mueller probe.
    White House press secretary Sarah Sanders could only refer to a statement by another Trump lawyer, Ty Cobb, which did not explicitly address the questions raised by the Times report.
    "I've only been asked about pardons by the press, and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House," Cobb said.
    The new intrigue about Gates was set off by a court filing by the special counsel's office regarding the upcoming sentencing of Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who worked with Gates and Manafort, and has pleaded guilty to lying to the Mueller investigation.
    Prosecutors said they had connected Gates to a person with ties to a Russian intelligence service.
    The news appeared to represent the most concrete link so far established by Mueller between the President's campaign and Russia.
    Trump has repeatedly denied there was any collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

    New court storm

    Trump's legal situation became yet more complicated with yet another development -- a move by the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who says she had an affair with Trump, to launch a defamation suit against the President's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
    Avenatti plans to compel a deposition by the President, which could hinge on the key question of what Trump knew about a $130,000 hush payment made to Daniels just before the 2016 presidential election, which some analysts believe could represent a violation of federal election laws.
    In the motion filed in federal court in California, Avenatti asked to depose both Trump and Cohen, for "no greater than two hours." A hearing on the request is set for April 30.
    "We want to know the truth about what the President knew, when he knew about it and what he did about it," Avenatti said on CBS "This Morning" Wednesday.
    Trump's team is likely to try to force the case surrounding the nondisclosure agreement that Daniels is trying to void into arbitration, a process that takes place largely behind closed doors and would avoid the dicey prospect of presidential deposition under oath.
    Trump has remained unusually silent on the Daniels offensive.
    But David Schwartz, Cohen's friend and attorney in another matter, said in a statement that Avenatti's motion is "a reckless use of the legal system" designed to "inflate Avenatti's deflated ego and keep himself relevant."
    Another risk for Trump in this case and in others involving two other women, former "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos, and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal is that he could become embroiled in legal discovery.
    That pre-trial process of gathering evidence could allow opposing lawyers to comb through his personal and business history and force unflattering material into the public eye.

    Trump hotel case here to stay.

    In what turned out to be a grim day in court for Trump, there was trouble on another front that involves the operation of his businesses and allegations by critics that he has not done enough to head off potential conflicts of interests as President.
    A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit could proceed that alleges that payments to Trump's hotel in Washington by foreign governments could violate the once-obscure emoluments clause of the Constitution.
    Judge Peter Messitte ruled that decisions by foreign governments to pay for events at Trump's hotel -- potentially simply because it was owned by the President -- could harm other hospitality businesses in the District and Maryland.
    Again, the issue for Trump may not just be the possibility of a yet another legal battle that would besiege his White House and the albeit distant possibility of an impeachment charge for breaching the Constitution.
    The court case could also expose the President to the possibility that his business history, which he has fought to keep out of the public eye, could become a target of rival lawyers in a discovery process.