The schemes employed to get President Donald Trump into the Oval Office are closing in on him, and he's frustrated at his predicament.
His former fixer has now been sentenced to prison and his tabloid friend's company landed an immunity deal. Trump separately admitted that his campaign did have interactions with Russians, which, even if it is the "peanut stuff" he claims, is an important shift from the blanket denials he had made previously.
The threads -- hush money for claims of affairs and interactions with Russians -- are becoming impossible to keep separate. But the pattern is clear: Schemes Trump repeatedly denied were hatched to help him get elected keep being proved true, and former friends and members of his inner circle keep heading to jail.
Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer and loyalist, once bragged he'd take a bullet for the President, but in reality it'll be three hard years in federal prison. Not even willing cooperation against the former boss and hero he flipped on could spare Cohen years of confinement, albeit less than the five prosecutors had requested. Most of the prison sentence is for crimes he pleaded guilty to in a case brought by New York prosecutors for campaign finance violations, tax evasion and making a false statement to a bank. The rest — two months — is for making false statements to Congress.
That Cohen blasted his former boss's "dirty deeds" and repented for joining Trump's "dark side" likely won't cost the President any sleep after he repeatedly dismissed his former lawyer as a "weak person" and a liar, but Trump is seething over Cohen's conviction, a White House source told CNN's Jeff Zeleny. The tendency of former associates to face legal problems also won't win Trump any new friends as he searches for new blood for his administration.
Neither will the sentencing next week of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to whom Trump has maintained a friendlier disposition despite Flynn's request in a filing Tuesday night that he not face jail time in exchange for his willing cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller. Flynn pleaded guilty a year ago to lying to investigators in the early days of the Trump administration.
Speaking of friends, there's also David Pecker. When Cohen orchestrated hush money schemes -- at the direct request of Trump, Cohen says -- to silence two women alleging long-ago affairs with the then-presidential candidate, he worked on his own for the porn star and conspired with Pecker's American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, for the Playboy model. Trump has denied having affairs with the women.
On cue after Cohen's sentencing, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York said they had reached a "non-prosecution agreement" with American Media Inc. for its cooperation and the company admitted the scheme on behalf of Trump. Pecker met with Cohen and "another member of the campaign" in August 2015, according to the agreement. It's not clear who the other campaign member is or whether other people could be implicated.
But the evident peril of working on behalf of Trump is important to note for possible White House job candidates. A personal lawyer may ultimately be required. CNN recently reported that chief of staff John Kelly, on his way out the door, was questioned in recent months as part of Mueller's obstruction-of-justice investigation.
Russia interactions are 'peanut stuff,' Trump says
The full scope of Mueller's investigation, what it will find and who will ultimately be implicated remains unknown, but with sentences for those former loyalists who cooperated in his investigation, the meaty Russia phase for which he was first appointed seems close, just in time for Democrats to take over the House of Representatives next month.
Along with control of the House, they'll take charge of investigative committees that will want to pore over Trump's admission Tuesday to Reuters in the face of overwhelming evidence and 16 interactions documented by CNN that members of his campaign may in fact have had interactions and business dealings with Russians.
"The stuff you're talking about is peanut stuff," Trump said.
It will not feel like peanuts to Cohen, who separately copped to seeking business dealings in Russia on Trump's behalf, trading on Trump's status as a presidential candidate. Nor will it feel like peanuts to Flynn. Nor to Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman currently sitting in jail, convicted in one trial and waiting to see what will happen after the special counsel said Manafort tried to lie his way through cooperating with prosecutors to avoid another.
The President's new reality
As some of Trump's friends and former associates face jail, his enemies feel ascendant as he got a face-to-face and on-camera introduction to what Nancy Pelosi will be like as his chief opponent.
Trump clearly thought he could control that opposition and play House Speaker-in-waiting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as villains, but he learned the hard way this week that theirs will not be an easy relationship to stage-manage.
When Trump invited reporters into the Oval Office on Tuesday while he upbraided Schumer and Pelosi -- he calls them Chuck and Nancy -- about the need for his wall and border security money, they gave as good as they got, and by the end of the appearance they had Trump proudly taunting them with the possibility of a partial government shutdown. What had seemed like an outside chance at the beginning of the meeting became a real possibility as the two sides dug in with reporters watching -- a real-life lesson on why to negotiate in private.
Those shutdown talks will overshadow praise for any last acts of unified government Republicans can muster before Pelosi seizes the speaker's gavel. In particular, the prospect of a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul could be a real notch in Trump's legacy if he can find the time and political capital to block for it in the Senate.
And the end result was a powerful-seeming Pelosi squelching the last gasps of resistance in her party to her being their leader in the House and Trump's chief opponent for the next two years. She might have to agree to step down after four years, but those will include two opposing Trump and two with either him or a Democratic replacement.
She seems content for now to let the Mueller investigation play out and to focus her fellow Democrats on beating Trump politically, which may become easier if he is consumed by the legal problems of his former confidants.
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