AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right, joining us now to talk more about these legal developments is Joyce Vance. She's a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Welcome.
JOYCE VANCE: Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So let's begin with the Cohen plea deal. As a former federal prosecutor, you were responsible for overseeing a number of criminal investigations. Were you surprised that Cohen pleaded guilty at this point in the investigation?
VANCE: It seemed early. There's a lot that has to be resolved for a defendant to plead guilty. And of course we don't know everything that's going on behind the scenes. But typically a defendant and his lawyer would want to see the government's case against them and make sure that it was provable before pleading guilty.
VANCE: So for Cohen to plead today, we have to assume that a lot of that went on behind the scenes.
CHANG: And in court today, Cohen said - you know, he admitted to making excessive campaign contributions in the summer of 2016 and then in October of 2016 at the direction of a federal candidate that is presumed to be Donald Trump. What kind of legal risks do you think the president could be facing at this point because of those admissions Cohen made?
VANCE: Well, first I think it's important to say and to remind folks that long-standing DOJ policy holds against indicting a sitting president. I still think it's very unlikely that we'll see this president formally charged as long as he's in office. But it's clear at this point that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. This should certainly light a fire under people on the Hill to think about accountability for someone who's violated the criminal code in this country and the trust that the American people placed in him.
CHANG: High crimes and misdemeanors - you're implying that Congress might be able to bring impeachment proceedings against the president. But what if those high crimes happened before he was actually elected president?
VANCE: I think the short circuit answer to your question is to talk about obstruction because the problem for this president is that his effort to cover up these prior acts continued well into the time after he took office. That presents a problem for him.
CHANG: All right, the other big news today - former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight charges of financial fraud. There was a mistrial on the remaining 10 charges. What did you make of the verdict today?
VANCE: It was a good verdict for the special counsel's office. Not all of the counts were counts of conviction, but this was a difficult and complex case, and the judge made it a little bit more difficult for the jury by not permitting them to see the evidence as the government introduced it into the record. But tonight Paul Manafort is a convicted felon.
CHANG: And if you were still a federal prosecutor, would you try to re-up those charges, those 10 charges that - where there was a mistrial later on, or do you think it would be not worth it at this point 'cause he's facing another trial next month?
VANCE: You know, the government has the option when there's a mistrial usually of retrying the charges that mistried. Here, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense for the government to retry. They've got the conviction of Paul Manafort that they need. As you say, there's a second trial coming up in the District of Columbia in a month - better to conserve resources and look ahead.
CHANG: And finally, very briefly, just to take a step back, how do you think today's developments play into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election? Do you see any impact?
VANCE: We've heard comments today I think from both the president and Rudy Giuliani making the point that this has nothing to do with collusion in Russia. And I suppose that that's one way of looking at it. Today neither of these cases directly link the Trump campaign or anyone in it to Russia's efforts to interfere and intervene in our election. But the problem that the president faces is that this is just one more step on the path going that direction. There is so much evidence that's publicly available at this point. The investigation won't stop. Where it ends up we don't yet know.
CHANG: All right, that's Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and now a distinguished visiting lecturer at the University of Alabama School of Law. Thank you very much.
VANCE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.