Trump Tells His Lawyers: Stay for the Coming Legal Hellscape
The president has made private admissions that federal investigations bedeviling his first term in office will be haunting him for possibly years to come.
Donald Trump has signaled to his inner circle that even he knows Special Counsel Robert Mueller finishing his investigation will be a new beginning, not a dramatic end, for Trumpworld’s eclectic legal hellscape.
The president made clear to his outside legal team, which includes Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, that he didn’t want his lawyers going anywhere—even after the Mueller probe ends. The conversations served as a private admission that federal investigations bedeviling his first term in office will be haunting him for possibly years to come.
The president broached the topic of keeping his team together starting late last year, according to two sources familiar with the exchanges, by discussing other legal woes he might face after the Special Counsel’s Office submits its report to the Department of Justice.
Trump’s focus at the time? The Southern District of New York. The jurisdiction, known as SDNY, is currently looking into matters involving the president. Those cases have long been considered by Trump’s close allies as a far graver potential threat than the Mueller investigation.
Details about Trump and his family business could be laid bare for public scrutiny as Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and self-described fixer, heads to the Hill to testify this week. He is set to answer questions regarding Trump’s debts and payments, compliance with federal disclosure requirements, tax laws, campaign finance laws, and potentially fraudulent practices by the Trump foundation.
Cohen’s appearances come at a time when members of Trump’s former inner circle are facing increased scrutiny by federal prosecutors. Earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she had been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. And Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is set to be sentenced Friday in Virginia for tax and bank fraud charges. He could face decades in prison not only for those charges, but also for conspiring against the U.S. and a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced last week that Mueller’s office was preparing to release a report to Attorney General William Barr on its nearly two year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Those reports were later put down by a senior Department of Justice official. But the political rhetoric surrounding the initial reports was enough to force the White House to go on the defensive.
“We feel good about the fact that what we’ve said all along for last two years will be clear: There was no collusion,” Sanders said during an appearance on Fox News’s Fox & Friends. “The idea that President Trump needed to collude with Russia in order to beat Hillary Clinton is frankly laughable.”
Despite all the bustle surrounding the submission of a Mueller report, sources close to the president say Trump’s legal team remains focused on pending matters in New York, as well as preparing for whatever other legal fallout could come stemming from Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Although the president has not been formally charged with any crime in SDNY, Cohen appeared to implicate Trump in a guilty plea as directing him to make hush payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal before the 2016 presidential election. And federal prosecutors said in court that Trump directed Cohen to make the payments. Cohen submitted his plea in December for a slew of felony counts related to campaign finance violations and has since been sentenced to three years in prison.
Following his name surfacing in the Cohen case, Trump publicly wrote off his former lawyer’s statements: “Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution. If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?”
But the president has failed to ward off public condemnation for the hush payments. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump suggested to then-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker last year that Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, take charge of the criminal investigation into the payments even though the prosecutor had already recused himself from the case. Trump has denied the report.
Cohen may also answer questions this week regarding President Trump’s inaugural committee. SDNY is currently investigating the committee for an alleged pay-to-play scheme that allowed donors to buy access to and influence the incoming administration. Federal prosecutors have also questioned witnesses about whether any foreign money flowed through to the inauguration, which is illegal under federal law.
Prosecutors recently issued a sweeping subpoena to the committee for information related to the inauguration and named Los Angeles venture capitalist and a former mega-donor for the Democrats Imaad Zuberi in the document.
The New York cases don’t end there. Former New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood last year sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation and alleged that it functioned “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” The lawsuit also alleged that the charity unlawfully coordinated with Trump’s 2016 campaign. The charity in December agreed to dissolve and give away its remaining assets.
But its board of directors, which includes Trump, his daughter, Ivanka, and his two sons, Eric and Donald, is still under investigation. The suit could bar them from participating on the boards of other New York charities and force them to pay millions in restitution of penalties.
Marc Mukasey, a former colleague of Giuliani and son of the former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, recently left his job at Greenberg Traurig, and is now representing Trump and his children in responding to the civil lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general. Mukasey is also representing Joel Zamel, the owner of the global consultancy agency Wikistrat. Zamel has been questioned by Mueller.
Beyond the legal turmoil in New York, Trump and his team are facing an onslaught of congressional investigations, including those that focus on the president’s family-run real estate empire, his tax returns, and the Trump Organization’s dealings with Deutsche Bank, which has been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for a $10 billion Russian money laundering scheme. House Democrats are also pursuing an investigation into Trump’s appointment of Whitaker.
Trump also faces a lawsuit, filed by the attorney generals in Washington D.C. and Maryland, over emoluments. The lawsuits allege Trump violated the Constitution’s anti-corruption clauses in part because he accepted payments from foreign officials who patronize the Trump International Hotel.
With Trump set for another overseas diplomatic jaunt with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un this week, his lawyers stay stateside, with all the various legal inquiries and suits waiting for the president’s flight back home.
“I believe the Mueller investigation has always been a part of ‘the resistance,’ designed to stop the president’s agenda by any means necessary,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser and himself a peripheral figure in the Russia investigations. “I believe the Southern District of New York is also part of ‘the resistance’—when you see the city of New York and the state of New York joining in on the fun to tie the president’s hands. [And] now that the House is controlled by Democrats and they have initiated innumerable investigations that will tie up the president as well, it is safe for ‘the resistance’ to end the Mueller investigation.”
“By my estimation,” Caputo added, “there will be a need for more attorneys, because I expect the harassment to double, if not triple.”
—With additional reporting by Lachlan Markay