Cohen, Trump and Manafort
Two of Trump's ex-aides now convicted felons
02:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Faced with the nearly simultaneous guilty plea of his former fixer and the guilty verdicts for his former campaign chairman, President Donald Trump responded Tuesday with some old standbys: “No collusion!” and “witch hunt!”

“This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump told reporters in West Virginia on Tuesday. “This started as Russian collusion, this has absolutely nothing to do, this is a witch hunt that ends in disgrace. But this has nothing to do what they started out, looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none.”

He was responding to a question about the Manafort verdict, but the guilty plea of his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen means the President might want to find a new defense. Here’s why:

First, with Cohen’s implication of Trump in a hush money scheme, the legal woes of Trump’s former associates extend beyond the Robert Mueller probe. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, attacking Cohen’s credibility and saying he had made things up.

Second, collusion to influence the 2016 election – albeit not with Russia – is exactly what Cohen accused Trump of doing when he said the President had directed him to influence the election by engineering payoffs to women who alleged affairs with Trump.

Mueller has actually made progress

Trump’s argument that Mueller’s probe hasn’t found anything relating to Russia ignores the many indictments of Russians accused of trying to interfere in the US election. And it ignores the guilty pleas from a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who has admitted to lying to authorities and trying to set up meetings with Russians.

It ignores the infamous Trump Tower meeting between a Russian woman who was offering compromising information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Mueller, by the way, is still very actively conducting his probe. More direct allegations of collusion with Russia could be on their way.

Tracking the Russia investigations

The law allows special counsels to uncover crimes as well as investigate them

But Trump’s larger point is that Mueller’s probe has evolved from its original purpose.

True, it was launched to find “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” But Mueller was specifically deputized to pursue “any matters that arose or may arise directly from that investigation.” If you don’t think Cohen’s allegation that Trump orchestrated the payoffs of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal rises to that level, there’s more. The code by which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller goes further and says the special counsel has more jurisdiction:

“If in the course of his or her investigation the Special Counsel concludes that additional jurisdiction beyond that specified in his or her original jurisdiction is necessary in order to fully investigate and resolve the matters assigned, or to investigate new matters that come to light in the course of his or her investigation, he or she shall consult with the Attorney General, who will determine whether to include the additional matters within the Special Counsel’s jurisdiction or assign them elsewhere.”

It was under a different law, but this is the same principle by which a special counsel appointed during the Clinton administration started out investigating a land deal and ended up encouraging impeachment because of President Bill Clinton’s statements under oath about his sexual relationship with a White House intern.

This is a good place to point out that Cohen’s guilty plea was engineered by the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York and not by Mueller’s special counsel’s office.

Mueller referred the case to the Southern District months ago, before a raid on Cohen’s apartment.

Cohen’s and Manafort’s crimes are serious

But the biggest problem with Trump’s “no collusion” defense is that he’s trying to minimize the guilt of his former associates. It’s not related to Russia, so it shouldn’t have been prosecuted, essentially. But they were crimes, at least in the minds of Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia, jurors, who agreed on eight of 18 counts and could send the former Trump campaign chief away for the rest of his life. Along with guilty pleadings from former Trump campaign staffers George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who are all cooperating with Mueller, the universe of Trump associates with the word “guilty” next to their names continues to grow.

That’s a problem for those staffers and a serious problem for Trump, whose promise to hire only the best people seems questionable at best.

The hard reality of all those proven or admitted crimes, however, makes it very difficult for Trump to do anything but attack the credibility of the system. At some point he can no longer try to marginalize all the now-convicted criminals who worked for him. There are too many.

That’s why he’ll continue to claim it’s all a big witch hunt, even though that claim is getting very hard to defend. He was praising Manafort on Tuesday, for instance, as a strong and honorable man who didn’t “break” like Cohen.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!” Trump said.

“Brave man” is a very interesting way to spin convicted tax fraud.

In the case of Cohen, the White House and Trump have argued the campaign finance charges he copped to shouldn’t even be crimes.

“Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!” Trump said Wednesday on Twitter.

It’s true the Obama campaign was fined, but the reason was very different – failing to disclose the sources of some campaign donations just before the election – not covering up alleged affairs with hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money.