WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House pushed back forcefully on Wednesday against suggestions that a plea deal struck by President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen implicated Trump in a crime.
“As the president has said, we’ve stated many times, he did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said at a White House briefing. “Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn’t mean that implicates the president on anything.”
Cohen on Tuesday pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations. He told a federal court in New York that Trump had directed him to arrange payments ahead of the 2016 presidential election to silence two women who said they had had affairs with Trump.
In the wake of Cohen’s plea, Senate Democrats on Wednesday demanded that upcoming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh be delayed, with some calling Trump a “co-conspirator.”
The president lashed out at his former attorney in a Twitter post and said the campaign finance violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty were not a crime - even though prosecutors and Cohen agreed they were. Trump made the claim without offering any evidence.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen,” Trump wrote.
At the same time, Trump used the social media site to praise his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted on Tuesday of multiple counts of fraud, as a “brave man” for not cooperating with federal authorities.
Fox News reporter Ainsley Earhardt, who interviewed Trump, said he had told her that he would consider pardoning Manafort. She said on the Fox’s “Hannity” programme that Trump “said he would consider” a pardon. “I think he feels bad for Manafort. They were friends,” Earhardt said.
Fox News has been airing excerpts of the interview with Trump, which is scheduled to be shown in its entirety on Thursday morning.
After first denying knowing anything about Cohen’s actions, Trump this year acknowledged he reimbursed Cohen for payments he made in 2016 to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. Daniels has alleged she had a relationship with Trump.
In July, CNN released an audio recording reportedly made by Cohen that features the lawyer and Trump in September 2016 discussing whether to buy the rights to the story of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who also has alleged an affair with Trump.
The president has insisted he paid Cohen out of personal funds and that the payments were not intended to benefit his campaign but to resolve a personal matter. “They weren’t taken out of campaign finance. That’s a big thing,” Trump told Fox. “They didn’t come out of the campaign; they came from me.”
Trump critics have argued that the case made by the president that the payments were personal do not hold up given the timing – only weeks before the 2016 election.
“If this was a personal matter, why wasn’t she paid off after the affair or in the intervening decade?” said Paul S. Ryan, the head of litigation at Common Cause. “The election was what made her story valuable.”
Cohen attorney Lanny Davis said his client had information that would be of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether the 2016 Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election. Davis set up a website to collect donations for Cohen’s legal expenses.
Asked at the briefing if Trump was concerned about what Cohen might tell Mueller, Sanders replied: “I don’t think the president is concerned at all. He knows that he did nothing wrong and that there was no collusion.”
New York investigators on Wednesday issued a subpoena to Cohen in connection with a criminal investigation of the Trump Foundation, a state official said.
Trump has granted pardons to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, but Davis said his client would not accept one.
“Mr. Cohen is not interested in being dirtied by a pardon from such a man,” Davis told National Public Radio.
Cohen’s plea came as Manafort was found guilty on eight charges in a financial fraud trial in Virginia, stemming from the federal investigation into Russia, the 2016 election and possible coordination with Trump’s campaign.
The Cohen and Manafort cases ratchet up political pressure on Republicans ahead of November elections in which Democrats hope to take control of Congress.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said at the group’s summer meeting in Chicago that Democrats need to retake power to install “guard rails” against Republican corruption.
Democrats found new grounds in Cohen’s plea to question Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer insisted that Kavanaugh’s early September confirmation hearing be pushed back. Other Senate Democrats said they were cancelling meetings with Kavanaugh and considered his nomination tainted.
Schumer said he was concerned that Kavanaugh told him presidents should not be subject to criminal or civil investigations – or even be required to comply with related subpoenas – while in office.
“A president identified as a co-conspirator of a federal crime, an accusation not made by a political enemy but by the closest of his own confidants, is on the verge of making a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, a court that may someday soon determine the extent of the president’s legal jeopardy,” Schumer said in a Senate speech.
But Trump’s fellow Republicans targeted Cohen. Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said Cohen’s “credibility is in tatters because he’s basically been all over the map in terms of what his story is.”
Cornyn said Congress would continue investigating claims of Russian election interference, but noted, “Nothing we heard yesterday has anything to do with Russia, or the reason why director Mueller was appointed special counsel.”
Russia has denied U.S. intelligence findings that it interfered with the election to boost Trump and hamper Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump has denied collusion by his campaign with Moscow and repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Jim Oliphant; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Susan Cornwell, Karen Freifeld, Ginger Gibson, Susan Heavey, and Lisa Lambert in Washington and Tim Reid in Chicago; Writing by Jim Oliphant and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Tim Ahmann, Bill Trott and Leslie Adler