Robert Mueller releases key filings in Russia probe: What the Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort memos tell us about Donald Trump's troubles in 2019

New York: Wading deeper and deeper into the White House, federal prosecutors in New York and the special counsel in charge of the Russia probe Robert Mueller, playing good cop-bad cop, filed their separate sentencing memos for US president Donald Trump’s former legal fixer Michael Cohen Friday, recommending substantial prison time for the man who once said he would "take a bullet" for Trump. Trump's opponents have pounced on Friday's new reveal, claiming it nails Trump as "co-conspirator" in a criminal case and plunges the US president into the worst possible legal situation he has ever been while a defiant Trump has instantly declared victory on Twitter.

For those looking to get straight to the red meat of all these Cohen-related filings today, it is the New York prosecutors saying Cohen broke the law "in coordination with and at the direction of" Candidate Trump.

Mueller also filed a document explaining why he believes former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort has lied to investigators in recent months. Manafort broke away from a co-operation agreement with Mueller and is likely hoping for a presidential pardon to escape significant jail time.

New York prosecutors' sentencing memo against Cohen
Mueller's sentencing memo on Cohen

Taken together, what does all this add up to for the man raging and fuming inside the White House? The Justice Department's view is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Enemy action, if at all, is likely to come when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives early next year. If they move to impeach Trump basis all of Mueller's mini-bombshell filings so far, the Senate will most likely block it unless there's a Nixon moment and Republicans withdraw support to Trump. Note that Republicans control the US Senate and political power has split down the middle after the 2018 midterms. Donald Trump’s troubles from the Russia "witch hunt" aren’t likely going to end in any court of law, it’s going to end at the voting booth in the 2020 elections.

Back to Cohen - he has been cooperating with two groups of investigators, one probing the lawyers payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election, and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia's alleged collusion with the Trump 2016 campaign. Cohen will be sentenced by a New York judge next Wednesday. Today's filings unveil in great detail how Cohen paid off two women whose stories of extra marital affairs with Individual 1 ( Donald Trump), if published, would hobble Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump, raging from the early morning hours in anticipation of these filings, pounced on the '#MuellerFriday' breaking news with a one line tweet - see below.

Trump's opponents don't think so. A parade of legal experts on US news networks are saying today's revelations put Trump in more legal trouble than he ever was. "One hundred percent", says Neal Katyal, former Acting Solicitor General of the United States. "To call Trump's role in all of this anything less than a crime is a ridiculous kind of spin", says Jeffrey Toobin. 

 Robert Mueller releases key filings in Russia probe: What the Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort memos tell us about Donald Trumps troubles in 2019

File image of special counsel Robert Mueller. AP

Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress and orchestrating hush-money payments to protect Trump. Prosecutors have recommended for Cohen a term of 42 months and a $100,000 fine. "The real news right now is not about Cohen’s sentence. It is about the conclusion by federal prosecutors that Donald J. Trump has committed a serious felony. This is the 1st time fed prosecutors have essentially said Trump committed a felony, by directing Cohen to commit campaign finance vios. Trump has not been charged (yet) and has defenses he can try, but it is a very significant development", Katyal said. There is no evidence yet that president Trump himself is a target of the Mueller investigation but it’s clear that Trump is raging, as his tweetstorm today suggests.

Recent developments, including Friday's filings, provide answers to two questions: Did Trump or anyone in his inner circle conspire with Russia to influence the 2016 election? Did Trump obstruct justice in his efforts to shut down the Mueller investigation?

In the process, what Mueller has revealed in heavily redacted memos also creates a new theme: The possibility of perjury and mal-intent on Trump's part.

Trump’s argument, though, has always been that his business dealings with Russia, for instance, are irrelevant to the Mueller investigation: “I could have done it. I decided not to do it. What if I had not won? There would be nothing wrong if I did do it. I was running my business while I was running for President.”

Freestyling like that has been Trump’s signature at the family business and that’s how he ran his campaign and now runs the White House. From all available accounts, he likes to come in, make some calls, take decisions on the fly. There is ambiguity on case laws that say exactly when this kind of freestyling is not okay. Does the red line become a thing after you sign up for a campaign or after you become president or after you become the candidate?

Despite the grey areas, what more do we know today and what does it mean for the Trump presidency?

The December filings by Mueller have fleshed out what was happening inside the 26th floor of the Trump Tower in New York City - which was the beating heart of the Trump campaign and the Trump business throughout the 2016 run.

What we now know is that from at least 2015 all the way till 2016, one of the Trump organisation's hottest potential real estate projects - the Moscow Project - was simply to chase a possible Trump Tower deal in the Russian capital city and their negotiations went right into the innermost chambers of the Vladimir Putin government.

One side says this is case closed and Trump says it’s a nothing burger.

On what grounds is this case closed? Trump opponents say that Mueller’s court filings already prove that Trump’s campaign openly peddled access to a potential US president in return for favours from foreign powers so that Donald Trump-the-businessman benefitted - and all this is anti-America.

What law was Trump violating? Is there any case law that constrains a private citizen from making nice with foreign powers while running for public office? Yes, there are a few and the picture that’s emerging is “close to treason”, says the resistance.

The Republican controlled Senate is unlikely to withdraw support even if the House (controlled by Democrats from January 2019) votes to impeach Trump. Trump and his White House will likely continue with the battering ram method, forever pushing the notion that anything less than complete criminality is totally okay.

Updated Date: Dec 08, 2018 08:00:18 IST