His worst nightmare: Trump's life under a legal microscope

Weeks of devastating legal revelations have left Donald Trump's political career clouded by criminality and ...

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 2:45 AM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 2:45 AM

Weeks of devastating legal revelations have left Donald Trump's political career clouded by criminality and his life, presidency and business empire under assault by relentless prosecutors on multiple fronts.

Days of court filings, flipped witnesses, damaging disclosures and sentencing hearings over the last month have delivered blows that appear to expose Trump and key associates to deep legal and political jeopardy.

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But the head-spinning volume of material being churned out by special counsel Robert Mueller and other jurisdictions often also blurs the bigger picture of a presidency beset by a span of scandal that is staggering in its breadth.

Simply put, Trump's campaign, transition, inaugural committee and presidency are now under active criminal investigation. His business -- the Trump Organization -- and his defunct charity -- The Trump Foundation are also under investigation (the charity investigation is a civil one). His college -- Trump University -- has already been deemed a fraud.

The President himself has been indirectly fingered by New York prosecutors overseen by his own Justice Department of directing criminal attempts to subvert campaign finance laws.

Then there is a civil lawsuit brought by Democratic-led states rooted in claims that Trump's refusal to fully disengage from his businesses means he is using his position to profit from deals in his hotel chain that contravene the Constitution.

The many layers of investigation are about to get even more comprehensive, with multiple committees in the new Democratic House launching oversight into Trump's personal finances, political operation and White House next year.

Many of those who chose to align themselves with Trump have meanwhile fallen foul of the law, sometimes for offenses unrelated to the President but which have offered prosecutors a window into his own conduct.

His former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in jail. His former attorney and "fixer" Michael Cohen is headed behind bars next year. His deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates is now a confessed felon. George Papadopoulos, a former member of his foreign policy advisory board, just got out of jail after flipping. His former national security adviser Michael Flynn may only avoid prison after turning on his former boss.

Questions continue to swirl around Trump's longtime political adviser Roger Stone among other things about what he knew when about Wikileaks email dumps. And people even closer to Trump, such as his son Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, cannot be sure they are in the clear although all, including the President, profess innocence and downplay Mueller's investigation.

Yet Mueller's success in securing plea deals from the likes of Flynn, Gates and Cohen is adding to the President's apparent legal peril.

In one of the more surreal twists of the Trump presidency, there is a conversation going in Washington about how Trump might have to win re-election to outrun a statute of limitations on campaign finance allegations.

This trail of dishonesty and deceit is evident even before Mueller has delivered what could ultimately be his most explosive findings -- whether he has found evidence that the President's campaign cooperated with Russia and whether he obstructed justice in the firing of former FBI chief James Comey and a bid to thwart Mueller.

A scandal-ridden presidency

A full assessment of the depth of Trump's political and legal predicament may only become clear next year. But the President has already expressed concern, according to CNN reporting, that he could be impeached.

But even if all the investigations stopped now and he was cleared of all wrongdoing, Trump would still be remembered for presiding over one of the most scandal-ridden presidencies of modern history.

Trump and his supporters maintain that there is no smoking gun and that the President's problems all stem from rogue prosecutors from the "deep state" that has always hated Trump. The President's cheerleaders on conservative channels meanwhile take up his cry that the democratic will of voters is at risk of being besmirched by a "fake news" media that is hostile towards him.

"Nobody but for me would be looked at like this. Nobody," Trump said in a Fox News interview this week, referring to claims he told Cohen to pay off women who claimed affairs with him to avoid hurting his campaign.

Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted to CNN's Chris Cuomo on Thursday that Trump's presumed foes in the media were willfully ignoring his arguments that he did not break the law.

"It's important and credible to the rest of the country, except for the people so blinded by their hatred toward him or their wishful thinking that he won't be President if they just close their eyes and click their heels three times," she said. "Get over it."

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani is offering the defense that Cohen should not be believed because he is a convicted liar.

Yet, the growing pile of evidence from Mueller and other prosecutors is rendering the denials of culpability from Trump and his supporters less credible.

As more damaging details emerge, Trump is indulging in his habitual practice of abandoning a position that has become untenable and constructing a new reality that better suits him.

Once for instance, Trump denied that he knew about hush payments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, he says he didn't tell Cohen to break the law.

"As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!" Trump tweeted on Thursday.

But the narrative that Cohen is a liar so Trump is in the clear ignores crucial details of Mueller's filings.

Corroboration

The special counsel has made clear in court documents that he has corroboration for claims by his cooperating witness Cohen. The President's fixer also said as much on Friday.

"There is a substantial amount of information that they possessed that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth," Cohen said in an interview with ABC News.

Trump's repeated mantra of "no collusion" with the Russians is also looking increasingly threadbare. There were multiple contacts between Trump's associates and Russians during the campaign and transition -- at least 16 according to CNN's reporting.

And many of those associates have since lied about the interactions, giving the impression that they are trying to cover something up.

The President's claims that he had nothing to do with Russia have been undermined by revelations in the Cohen case that he was pursuing a potentially lucrative deal to build a luxury tower in Moscow until deep into a campaign that was simultaneously the target of a meddling effort by the Kremlin's spies.

And Mueller is clearly probing whether there is a nexus between Trump's business ventures and Russia's election interference.

In a sentencing memo earlier this month, he wrote that the Trump Tower project "occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the US presidential election."

It is, of course, possible that all of these Trump associates were operating outside the knowledge of the President. Statements in documents filed by Mueller and other jurisdictions are prosecutorial in nature and may not reveal mitigating circumstances that Trump could use in his defense

It is unclear at this point whether the US attorney's office in the Southern District of New York would be able to prove that Trump knowingly asked Cohen to break campaign finance laws.

But the idea that Trump knew nothing -- about Russia attempts to infiltrate his campaign, about hush payments or other key aspects of cases in which is involved -- appears unlikely, given his omnipotent role in his inner circle.

And he has already proven to have lied, if Mueller is to be believed, about key aspects of the Russia investigation and his interaction with Cohen.

Still, many legal experts believe that if wrongdoing is found, the President is immune from prosecution owing to his unique constitutional position.

If his only transgression does turn out to be on campaign finance, it seems unlikely that Democrats in the House will risk an impeachment process based on charges that may fall short of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

So far, Trump's firewall of Republican support in the Senate, where any subsequent impeachment trial would take place is standing firm.

Whether that would start crumbling should Mueller produce a damning report that causes a fracturing of Trump's political power base as an election approaches in 2020 remains untested.

While much has been learned about the President's legal exposure in recent days, the true extent of his liability remains to be seen.

For now, however, it's clear: the President's legal and political position is far more perilous than it was weeks ago and he has reason to be worried about a flurry of investigations that are digging deep into his private, personal, business and political life.

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