Washington Wednesday: Trump investigations

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 29th of August, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, Washington Wednesday.

Last week brought two major developments in the investigations surrounding President Donald Trump. And they came only two minutes apart.

It was 4:21 p.m. in New York last Tuesday. President Trump’s long-time personal attorney pled guilty to eight counts of campaign-finance violations. Those violations had to do with payments Michael Cohen made to two women who said they had affairs with Donald Trump. That doesn’t necessarily implicate the candidate…

ROBERTS: But Cohen said, in court documents that he signed, that he did this at the direction of and in coordination with a candidate for federal office. Now unless there’s some candidate for federal office that we haven’t heard about, that Cohen had been working with, that would suggest that President Trump might that candidate…

Now, the Cohen plea deal was not part of the special counsel investigation. Not directly, anyway. That probe is about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators did uncover the Cohen case. Then they referred it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

What was part of the Mueller investigation unfolded in Alexandria, Virginia.

That’s where Paul Manafort was standing trial on 18 counts of bank and tax fraud. Manafort served as the Trump campaign chairman for two months in the summer of 2016—and the charges involved his actions years before that.

Two minutes after Cohen entered his guilty plea in New York, the jury in Virginia reached its verdict in the Manafort trial.

TAPPER: The jury has found Paul Manafort guilty of eight of the 18 counts. The other 10—there has been a mistrial declared…

Those eight counts carry a combined maximum sentence of 80 years in prison. Meaning the 69-year-old Paul Manafort is facing the possibility of life behind bars.

But that’s not all he’s facing. The Mueller team is bringing a another trial against Manafort. In that one he’ll face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, witness tampering, and failing to register as a foreign agent.

Paul Manafort’s second trial is set to begin September 24th in Washington, D.C.

On the line now to discuss all of this is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Now, we normally don’t ask you to log double duty here, Henry, two weeks in a row, but you’re one of the best, so we’re coming back for more. I appreciate your being with us this morning.

HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Oh, thank you very much for having me back, and thanks for the compliment.

EICHER: Let’s start with history. You’ve studied the presidency. Scandals are kind of part and parcel of it, so it seems. We’ve had two impeachments: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon seemed to see the handwriting on the wall and resigned. Are we that far down the road with this president? How does it stack up with what we’ve seen in the past?

OLSEN: We are not close yet to an actual impeachment. In each of those cases, what you had was either a strong direct act tied to the president in the sense of Clinton or Johnson or when the impeachment charges were brought against Nixon, a very clear set of actual criminal acts. We’re potentially closer to the proving of criminal acts, but there is no clear and demonstrable personal tie of Trump to committing such an act. So we’re not yet close to the sort of things that occurred prior to the actual impeachments of the three people you mentioned.

EICHER: Now, when we think about Paul Manafort, President Trump’s defenders will repeat what the president himself said.

TRUMP: It doesn’t involve me, but I still feel, ah, you know it’s a very sad thing that happens. This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion, this has absolutely nothing to do. This is a witch hunt and it’s a disgrace.

Nor did it have anything to do with anything Manafort did as chairman of the campaign. But think about what the Democrats used to say about the Ken Starr investigation into Bill Clinton. Lying under oath about Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with the land deal, Whitewater. Yet it did lead to Clinton’s impeachment. You say, we’re not there right now, but how would you rate the danger the president faces?

OLSEN: I’d say it’s a moderate amount of danger that we’ve got a lot of smoke on a lot of different fires. Again, I’ll return to what happened with Clinton, what happened with Andrew Johnson, and what ultimately happened that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation is a direct and incontrovertible act committed by the president himself. We don’t have that here. We have a lot of smoke which leads a lot of people who dislike Trump or despise him for his personality and his policy to say eventually we’ll find it. But it’s not there yet, and until it’s there, we really don’t have something that will convince the majority of the American people to back an impeachment effort.

EICHER: I want to talk about Michael Cohen, the former lawyer for President Trump in just a minute, but stay on Paul Manafort here for just a moment. Given what the president’s said, do you think it’s likely, do you think he’s inclined to pardon Manafort?

OLSEN: Well, inclined and doing are two different things. I suspect he’s highly inclined to pardon him. I think what he has found in discussing things with the staff who would actually draft the orders and execute them is either extremely strong pushback and advice not to do it, or threats of resignation and to-date the president has been unwilling to push that. And so if I had to be a betting person, I would say Manafort will not get a pardon while the investigation of Trump is continuing. But I would bet him as almost a lock for pardon once the Mueller report is finally put to bed.

EICHER: Okay, let’s move to Michael Cohen now. This one seemed a lot more damaging, but I am curious what you think about it. Do you think that the Cohen case is worse than the Manafort case?

OLSEN: Well, I mean, let’s be precise. The Cohen plea bargain… it’s worse because Cohen says in the things he responded to in pleading guilty that he acted at the direction of a candidate. And there’s only one candidate who could have been involved in the acts to which he plead guilty, and that’s Donald Trump. That moves the ball closer to something that is a personal involvement, but I’ll caution that it’s not a direct involvement… In the absence of a tape or in the absence of an admission or a witness, this is not as serious yet as what Clinton and Nixon experienced.

EICHER: Let’s talk about Robert Mueller before I let you go, Henry. We hear Mueller hurry up, but, again, we’ll look back to the last time we did this—the Ken Starr report took four years. How likely is it, do you think, this investigation is just going to be a full-time feature of the Trump presidency?

OLSEN: I suspect we will be dealing with the investigation or its fallout for the entirety of the first term. I do not think that Mueller will stop the investigation until he is satisfied that he has gone down every avenue of potential criminal wrongdoing. This is not related to Russia anymore, this is simply a large fishnet to see what wrongdoing exists in and around the Trump environment. I have no idea when he’s going to wrap it up, but he will not wrap it up until he is satisfied that it is finished, and then he will draft his report, and then we will deal with the fallout of that report. I see very little likelihood that there will be any moment of respite for the president until at least well into the end of his first term and that would be if he were lucky.

EICHER: I want to ask your view on these kinds of prosecutions, do you have a  view on the independent counsel law?

OLSEN: Well, there is no independent counsel law. That was allowed to lapse. This is being done at the sole discretion of the Justice Department, which is why there’s the question about the firing of Sessions and Rosenstein, is that there is no law that protects Mueller from dismissal. So,  I did not support an independent counsel law in the past. I do not support an independent counsel law now. Trump would be fully within his constitutional rights to dismiss and end it, whether that would be politically wise or legally wise are other questions, but I don’t think there’s any constitutional question about Trump being the ultimate head of the Justice Department and ultimately having the right to shut down an investigation into himself using federal resources.

EICHER: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Thanks so much.

OLSEN: Thanks for having me on.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) In this June 21, 2017, file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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