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Separate Court Actions Taken Against 2 Ex-Trump Confidants


All morning, we're looking at the dramatic few minutes yesterday involving two of President Trump's former allies. Within moments, the two Trump associates appeared in distant courtrooms. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of fraud and failing to disclose a foreign bank account in a Virginia courtroom. And just moments later in a federal court in New York, Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen pled guilty to campaign finance violations. Cohen said then-candidate Donald Trump told him to pay hush money to two women who said they had affairs with Donald Trump. And Cohen said he made these payments with the explicit intention of influencing the 2016 election.

Harry Sandick is with us to help understand the legal implications of all this - in particular, for the president. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which is relevant here because it's the same jurisdiction that led the prosecution against Michael Cohen. Mr. Sandick joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being here.

HARRY SANDICK: Absolutely. Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: So let's start off by being clear about the fact that the president was not charged with any crime yesterday, but he was implicated in a crime by Michael Cohen. What does that mean?

SANDICK: Well, what it means is that at this point, and maybe permanently in the future, the president isn't facing any charges. Michael Cohen made statements under oath, which is a solemn matter as part of a guilty plea. The defendant always explains what he did that violated the law. And here, he directly implicated the president. The absence of charges against the president could be related to several different things. It could be because DOJ policy prohibits the charging of a sitting president with a crime. It could also be because the Southern District hasn't yet gathered the evidence that it feels it needs to corroborate what Michael Cohen said. So thankfully, whether you're the president of the United States or someone else, it takes more than just one person's word to lead to a prosecution.

MARTIN: Remind us what specific campaign finance law was broken here.

SANDICK: Sure. So there were two charges - one charge related to the McDougal payment that essentially...

MARTIN: This is Karen McDougal - sorry for interrupting - Karen McDougal, one of the two women alleged to have had an affair with President Trump.

SANDICK: Exactly. And she was paid money by American Media, which is a - the owner of the National Enquirer. She believed that they were buying her story to run it to give her some publicity. But in reality, according to the information, it was being purchased, essentially, to kill the story and to help protect the president from an embarrassing story leaking during the later days of his campaign. If you make a payment to someone to benefit the campaign, that has to be disclosed. If it's above a certain value, it's illegal. And if you do this accidentally, it's probably not a crime. But the allegation here is that Cohen participated in this payment knowing that it was a crime, doing so willfully and intentionally.

MARTIN: But do we know that he used campaign funds to do it? Wasn't there some reporting that he had gotten a loan on a house to pay this off?

SANDICK: So if you make this - well, this is - that's the Stormy Daniels payment. And there is an allegation that he obtained the money by making false statements to banks to obtain a letter of credit. And there, whether it was campaign funds or not - perhaps even worse if it's not campaign funds - if Michael Cohen is making a personal payment to benefit the campaign in order to keep someone silent, to prevent these allegations from coming out, the law says that's not permitted. You have to disclose the payments that are made for the benefit of a campaign, and there's a limit because you can't make an unlimited campaign contribution. So again, the allegation here is this, like the McDougal arrangement with the National Enquirer, was done with the knowledge that it would violate campaign finance laws, done intentionally and, in court, he said at the direction of the president.

MARTIN: Special counsel Robert Mueller had handed off the Cohen case to the Southern District of New York. They had scrubbed Michael Cohen's apartment and other buildings, found these documents and then gave them over to the Southern District of New York to investigate. So does Cohen's guilty plea now and conviction - does that have any bearing on the Mueller investigation?

SANDICK: Well, it might have a bearing on the Mueller investigation, although I think what Mueller seems to have decided early on at the time when the search warrant was to be executed, and maybe even in advance of that, was that the Cohen allegations don't really pertain to his mandate to investigate the so-called Russia collusion story...

MARTIN: Right.

SANDICK: ...That they pertain to other violations. So conscious that he's not supposed to be the prosecutor for all things Trump-related, he referred this out to the Southern District of New York. And the prosecutors there took it, ran with it and then got Michael Cohen to plead guilty yesterday.

MARTIN: So now, I mean, this - let's say the president at some point decides to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, which he has threatened at times. Presumably, the investigations out of the Southern District would continue.

SANDICK: They absolutely should continue. Those prosecutors, although headed by a U.S. attorney who's traditionally appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, is composed of career prosecutors. They will act without fear or favor and continue to press their cases forward against anyone, including Michael Cohen. So this is not something that can be shut down as simply as firing the special counsel.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the Paul Manafort case as well. He was convicted of eight out of 18 charges related to tax and bank fraud. What does it imply that he was only convicted of eight of these?

SANDICK: Well, I think there are a couple of inferences to draw. The first inference is to say that because he was convicted on several counts, Paul Manafort is - unless there's going to be a reversal on appeal or a pardon - is going to go to jail and going to go to jail for several years. The fact that he had a hung jury on several counts will not change that at all. However, the fact that there was a hung jury, I think, indicates that it was a well-tried case by the defense, as well as by the prosecutors, and that, obviously, some of the legal issues and factual issues were considered to be close by the jury. It's not clear that the government will ever go back and retry the open counts, but it seems to leave Manafort in a position where he's probably facing a sentence of somewhere between seven and 10 years, unless the judge wants to go under that...

MARTIN: But...

SANDICK: ...Guideline's reach.

MARTIN: ...Interesting - he did not make a plea deal. But would he still have the chance to cooperate with federal prosecutors before sentencing?

SANDICK: I think he would. In some cases, when you go to trial, the government loses interest. But here, he potentially has tremendous information about the president, so I think that door is always open.

MARTIN: Former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

SANDICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEOTIC'S "3PM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.