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Cohen, Manafort Case Results Are An Extraordinary Moment For Trump


All right. All this news yesterday - the Manafort conviction, also Michael Cohen, President Trump's former attorney, pleading guilty in a courtroom in Manhattan - it's hard to really know at all how this will all fit into history and the course of Donald Trump's presidency. But let's try and broaden this conversation with veteran reporter Michael Isikoff. He is now the chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News. Back in the 1990s, he was the first person to report on claims made by Paula Jones that Bill Clinton had sexually assaulted her, and that story led to the uncovering of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and to Clinton's impeachment. Isikoff is also co-author of "Russian Roulette," a book about Russian interference in the 2016 election. He joins us in our studios. Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good morning.

GREENE: Can you try and put this moment in perspective? I mean, you obviously - (laughter), you obviously have covered different kinds of presidential stories and when there were sort of incremental legal moments that may have or may have not led to bigger things.

ISIKOFF: Well, look, this was more than incremental. This was an extraordinary moment to have the president's longtime personal lawyer and fixer, a guy who said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump, appearing in federal court pleading to federal crimes and saying he did so at the direction of a candidate for federal office. That candidate was Donald J. Trump.

GREENE: So what should we know about the position that President Trump is in? He's not been charged himself with anything, but he's the president of United States and he's watching, as you said, his once-loyal lawyer directly implicate him. What is in the mind of this White House right now?

ISIKOFF: (Laughter) Well, I would think anybody who's representing the president and the president himself would have to be worried about these developments. First of all, it's clear if you read the court documents that there were multiple people involved. In fact, the court documents say that Michael Cohen arranged these payments by coordinating with one or more members of the campaign. So that could be a reference to President Trump, or it could also be a reference to other members of the campaign who have not yet been identified. Also, if you read the court documents, it's clear that the Trump Organization, the president's own personally owned business, was directly implicated in the payments. In fact, there's a reference to the reimbursement having gone through made by the Trump Organization, executives at that company falsely listing the reimbursement as some sort of legal retainer for Michael Cohen when in fact there was no such legal retainer. And they grossed up - those are the words in the court documents - the amount so that Michael Cohen ended up being paid $420,000 for a $130,000 payment he arranged to make to Stormy Daniels.

GREENE: Does this legal situation that Trump is in compare to the legal jeopardy that President Clinton was in during the Lewinsky scandal?

ISIKOFF: There are certainly parallels. And it's worth remembering they're both at root about covering up, concealing a sexual relationship. In Bill Clinton's case, it was Monica Lewinsky. In Donald Trump's case, it was with Stormy Daniels. So, you know, there are all sorts of questions about this. Now, look, if Michael Cohen was telling the truth in court yesterday - he made it clear he was directed to make these illegal payments by Donald Trump - that would seem to raise the question why isn't Donald Trump charged himself? Justice Department policy is you can't indict a sitting president. So that may be the answer right then and there. So then what is the recourse? Well, you know, this could be a matter for Congress. It could factor into impeachment proceedings if the Democrats get back control of the House and they go that direction. But it's worth remembering that many of the same Democrats, starting with Jerrold Nadler, who would be prime to take over and be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee if Democrats take back control of the House, argued forcefully that covering up a consensual affair in the Clinton matter was not cause for impeachment.

GREENE: Wow. I hadn't even thought about that.


GREENE: I'm sure Republicans would be very quick to bring up those old statements the Democrats made.

ISIKOFF: We could see hypocrisy on all sides here as this plays out in the coming months.

GREENE: Let me ask you this. Did the standard that Bill Clinton set - I mean a president who had had affairs and was dealing with that. You know, allegations that the Clintons may have even silenced some of the women. Did this somehow pave the way for President Trump to do the same and try and handle this during his campaign in the same way, potentially?

ISIKOFF: You know, that strikes me as a little bit of a stretch. I think there's probably an impulse for all powerful and wealthy men to want to conceal affairs that could embarrass them. But what's important here about the Cohen matter is it was in the context of a campaign and that Michael Cohen acknowledged that he made this payment for the purpose of influencing a presidential election. And that's what made it illegal, and that's why this is going to have some legs.

GREENE: You've reported that at least one lawyer who worked for the Watergate, special prosecutors, have called on Robert Mueller to move things along here and get their report done. Do you think - I mean, is Mueller dragging things out longer than necessary?

ISIKOFF: Well, look, we don't know everything he knows. And, clearly, with Michael Cohen's guilty plea and particularly the statements made by his new spokesman lawyer last night, Lanny Davis, suggesting that Michael Cohen has information that's directly relevant to Robert Mueller's inquiry, it would seem that Mueller would want to get that testimony as quickly as he can in order to complete whatever report or whatever charges he's going to be filing.

GREENE: OK. Trying to put this moment in some historic perspective with Michael Isikoff, a veteran reporter chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News right now. Also co-author of the book "Russian Roulette." Michael, thanks, as always. Great to talk to you.

ISIKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.