The latest revelations by prosecutors investigating President Donald Trump and his team draw a portrait of a candidate who personally directed an illegal scheme to manipulate the 2016 election and whose advisers had more contact with Russia than Mr Trump has ever acknowledged.
In the narrative that special counsel Robert Mueller and New York prosecutors are building, Mr Trump continued to secretly seek to do business in Russia deep into his presidential campaign even as Russian agents made more efforts to influence him.
At the same time, in this account he ordered hush payments to two women to suppress stories of impropriety in violation of campaign finance law.
The prosecutors made clear in their memo that they viewed efforts by Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to squelch the stories as nothing less than a perversion of a democratic election – and by extension they effectively accused the President of defrauding voters, questioning the legitimacy of his victory.
On Saturday (US time), Mr Trump dismissed the filings, and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, minimised the importance of any potential campaign finance violations. Democrats, however, said they could lead to impeachment.
In a sentencing memo filed on Friday in the Cohen case, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York depicted Mr Trump, identified only as “Individual-1,” as an accomplice in the hush payments. While Mr Trump was not charged, the reference echoed Watergate, when President Richard Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator by a grand jury investigating the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters.
“While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows,” the prosecutors wrote.
“He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs with Individual-1,” they continued.
“In the process, Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.”
The exposure on campaign finance laws poses a challenge to Mr Trump’s legal team, which before now has focused mainly on rebutting allegations of collusion and obstruction while trying to call into question Mr Mueller’s credibility.
“Until now, you had two different charges, allegations, whatever you want to call them,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on Saturday (US time).
“One was collusion with the Russians. One was obstruction of justice and all that entails. And now you have a third – that the President was at the centre of a massive fraud against the American people.”
The episode recalled a criminal case brought against former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. who, while running for president in 2008, sought to cover up an extramarital affair that resulted in pregnancy. He was charged with violating campaign finance laws stemming from money used to hide his pregnant lover, but a trial ended in 2012 with an acquittal on one charge and a mistrial on five others.
Mr Giuliani pointed to that outcome on Saturday (US time) to argue the President should not be similarly charged.
“The President is not implicated in campaign finance violations because, based on Edwards case and others, the payments are not campaign contributions,” Mr Giuliani wrote on Twitter. “No responsible prosecutor would premise a criminal case on a questionable interpretation of the law.”
But Mr Cohen has pleaded guilty under that interpretation of the law, and even if Mr Trump cannot be charged while in office, the House could still investigate or even seek to impeach him.
The framers of the US Constitution specifically envisioned impeachment as a remedy for removing a president who obtained office through corrupt means, and legal scholars have long concluded that the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanours” does not necessarily require a statutory crime.
If the campaign finance case as laid out by prosecutors is true, Mr Nadler said, Mr Trump would be likely to meet the criteria for an impeachable offence, and he said he would instruct his committee to investigate when he takes over in January.
But he added that did not necessarily mean that the committee should vote to impeach Mr Trump. “Is it serious enough to justify impeachment?” he asked. “That is another question.”
The strategy of Mr Trump’s lawyers has been predicated on the assurance by senior Justice Department officials that if Mr Mueller found evidence that the President broke the law, he would not be indicted while in office. But the hush money investigation is being led by a separate office of prosecutors in New York, and far less time has been spent publicly or privately trying to protect Mr Trump from that inquiry.
And while the prevailing view at the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, that does not mean a president cannot be charged after leaving office. The prosecutors in New York have examined the statute of limitations on the campaign finance violations and believe charges could be brought against Mr Trump if he is not re-elected, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Mr Trump’s lawyers view that as unlikely if it is based solely on the current charges.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who will be the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the new Congress, which begins next month, said he saw no reason conservatives should walk away from Mr Trump given his record of policy achievements and questions about the impartiality of the president’s investigators.
“I always come back to the facts,” he said in an interview. “To date, not one bit of evidence of any type of co-ordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election.”
If prosecutors have conclusive evidence of conspiracy, they have not shown their hand. But the filings in recent days made clear that while Mr Trump repeatedly insisted he had no business dealings in Russia, it was not without trying.
Mr Trump’s business was pursuing a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow until June 2016, while Mr Trump was locking up the Republican nomination and long after Mr Cohen had previously said the project was dropped.
At the same time, Mr Cohen, starting in November 2015, was in contact with a well-connected Russian who proposed “synergy on a government level” with the Trump campaign and proposed a meeting between Mr Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The Russian said such a meeting could grease the way for the tower, telling Mr Cohen that there was “no bigger warranty in any project than consent” by Mr Putin.
In his own court memo, Mr Mueller said Mr Cohen’s false account that the deal had collapsed in January 2016 was designed “in hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election – an issue of heightened national interest.”
Although Mr Trump asserted on Saturday (US time) that he was “happy” with the latest filings, others did not agree.
The Cohen information alone “puts impeachment on the table and I can’t help but think that that is what this is barreling toward,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist who has been critical of Mr Trump. “Any other presidency at this point would have been done when their own Department of Justice filed something like that.”
But while the House can impeach a president on a majority vote, conviction in the Senate requires a two-thirds vote, meaning that unless at least 20 Republican senators abandon Mr Trump, he is safe from removal.
Despite the losses in the House last month, Republicans, if anything, have moved closer to the President.
-The New York Times