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Trump Lashes Out After Longtime Lawyer Pleads Guilty And Implicates President

A composite file photo of U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and his former Michael Cohen

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out at his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, a day after Cohen pleaded guilty to election finance violations and implicated Trump as well.

Trump's comments, made in a series of posts to Twitter on August 22, came amid the worst legal crisis of Trump's presidency, a situation also compounded by the conviction of his former election campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, by a federal jury.

In his Twitter posts, Trump said Cohen was a bad lawyer who had succumbed to pressure from U.S. prosecutors "to make up stories in order to get a 'deal.'"

He also asserted that the campaign finance charges Cohen had pleaded guilty to on August 21 were not in fact crimes, something that many legal experts disagreed with.

Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, meanwhile, said Cohen's plea, and his comments in Manhattan federal court, were an explicit assertion that Trump had ordered Cohen to make "illegal payments."

"It is definitive, indisputable that Donald Trump's lawyers said in a letter to the Special Counsel [Robert Mueller] that President Trump directed -- the same word that Michael Cohen used in court yesterday under oath -- directed Cohen to make illegal payments," Davis said in comments to CBS News.

Trump "committed a crime," Davis said. "He should be indicted. If he were not president, he clearly would be indicted and jailed for that crime. Whether he can be indicted as president, of course, is not yet decided by the Supreme Court."

Mueller Investigation

Both Cohen and Manafort's cases are connected to Mueller's investigation into interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials, as well as Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Neither deals directly with Russian interference in the election, though the case against Manafort focused on income he received as a political consultant for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine.

While Manafort’s August 21 conviction is significant -- a conviction in the first case Mueller’s team has brought to trial -- many legal observers have watched Cohen’s case more attentively because of more direct problems for Trump.

Cohen's case reportedly grew out of Mueller’s efforts, but was transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, one of the most influential U.S. attorney's offices in the country.

Cohen served for years as Trump's personal lawyer and "fixer" -- helping to negotiate deals and protect Trump and his family.

In April, federal agents raided Cohen's home and office and seized millions of pages of documents and bank records. No charges were brought against him immediately, but authorities indicated that the investigation was focused on possible violations of U.S. election law.

In Manhattan federal court, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts in all, including tax evasion. In the plea, he said he arranged payment during the 2016 presidential election of so-called "hush money" to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Cohen didn't directly name Trump, saying only that he made the illegal campaign payments "at the direction of a candidate" and that the funds were paid "for the principal purpose of influencing the election" in 2016.

The hush money payments are important because Cohen said they occurred during the election campaign, and they could be considered a campaign contribution because they were made to influence the opinions of U.S. voters.

U.S. election law requires any contribution to a political candidate to be publicly disclosed, which neither Trump nor his campaign apparently did. That could be charged as a felony violation.

Trump has repeatedly denied having affairs with the two women, and has repeatedly attacked the Mueller probe as a "witch hunt."

Cohen's plea did not appear to include agreement to cooperate with Mueller's investigation, something that would potentially help reduce the amount of prison time he faces.

But earlier, Davis said in TV interviews on CNN and elsewhere that Cohen had information "that would be of interest" to Mueller. That information could include whether Trump knew ahead of time about the Russian hacking of Democratic Party e-mails during the 2016 election campaign.

Congressional Testimony?

Davis also told CNN that Cohen would probably be willing to testify before Congress without being granted immunity.

The Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on August 21, just minutes before Cohen's plea was announced, that they wanted Cohen to come testify.

Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner suggested that Cohen knew in advance about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that was attended by Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and Manafort, along with a Russian lawyer believed to have ties to Russia's prosecutor-general and intelligence agencies.

In his August 22 posts to Twitter, Trump expressed sympathy for Manafort, whom a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, found guilty on eight of 18 counts of tax-evasion and bank-fraud charges.

He contrasted Manafort’s plight with Cohen’s -- suggesting that Manafort was more stalwart in the face of pressure from prosecutors.

Manafort will face a second trial in federal court in Washington, D.C., beginning next month, a case that features charges of defrauding the United States and witness tampering, and could yield even more damaging revelations about Russia's interference efforts.

Cohen is the fifth Trump associate to have pleaded guilty or be charged since Trump took office.

Others include his first national security adviser Michael Flynn and Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates, who testified against Manafort during the Virginia trial.

The question of whether Trump -- or any sitting U.S. president -- can be criminally indicted is a politically charged, and unresolved, legal question. The U.S. Constitution does not indicate if that is possible, but for decades, U.S. Justice Department policy has been that sitting presidents cannot be indicted.

If Mueller, who has been seeking to interview to Trump as part of the investigation, were to indict Trump, Trump's lawyers would likely fight it on constitutional grounds, in which case the fight would go all the way to the Supreme Court to be decided.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.