U.S. President Donald Trump, center, smiles during a meeting with governors-elect in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Trump’s Political Troubles Mount After a Week of Court Setbacks

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump can’t outrun his past.

Just as the president appeared to be closing in on modest legislative and trade victories this week, a string of legal and political setbacks largely related to his campaign and inauguration threatened to once again bring turmoil to his White House.

Federal prosecutors directly implicated the president in campaign finance law violations, which are potential felonies. His former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, promised to testify to Congress and said Friday that Trump ordered payments to two women to silence them during the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that prosecutors in Manhattan are looking into the activities of the Trump inauguration committee.

Trump’s Political Troubles Mount After a Week of Court Setbacks

The developments have intensified questions about the president’s legal and political exposure heading into his 2020 re-election campaign, and contributed to a growing sense that he and his allies have underestimated the size and scope of multiple federal investigations into his associates and his own behavior as a public official.

If they hoped a payoff to Stormy Daniels and a Trump Tower Moscow project that never got off the ground were Trump’s main headaches — and would be easily sidestepped -- this week put that notion to rest for good.

Small Solace

Fresh uncertainty surrounded an already besieged West Wing, where aides expect the New Year to usher in greater scrutiny from prosecutors as well as newly empowered congressional Democrats. But Trump, who believes the legal cases against Cohen, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other associates are politically motivated and intended to humiliate and weaken him, remained defiant.

What Cohen did, Trump said in an interview on Fox News, “was all unrelated to me except for the two campaign finance charges that are not criminal and shouldn’t have been on there. They put that on to embarrass me. They put those two charges on to embarrass me.”

“I’m the only one that this happens to,” he complained.

Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, insisted to reporters that the investigation into the inaugural committee also didn’t involve the president.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or first lady,” Sanders said. “The biggest thing the president did in his engagement with the inauguration was to come out here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inaugural.”

Cohen said Friday in his first interview since being sentenced to three years in prison that Trump directed hush payments to women alleging affairs with him out of concern about “how this would affect the election.” Cohen said in the interview with ABC News that “of course” Trump knew it was wrong to make the payments.

Cohen said he feels like he’s regained his freedom and won’t be “the villain of his story,” referring to Trump. He said his guilty pleas to breaking campaign-finance laws as well as lying to Congress weren’t intended to embarrass Trump and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has a “substantial amount” of information corroborating his account.

Trump’s Political Troubles Mount After a Week of Court Setbacks

‘Resistance Christmas’

There was some solace for Trump. Nothing in this week’s revelations amounted to the kind of bombshell that would cause Senate Republicans to abandon him and give life to an impeachment effort. The president is likely shielded from prosecution while in office, and wields pardon power that could benefit those closest to him.

A person close to the president who asked not to be identified in order to candidly assess the legal developments said nothing about the week had placed Trump in new peril.

“This was always the plan for Resistance Christmas and until somebody comes up with a way to prove the president is more guilty than John Edwards, I’ll be singing carols, like always,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide.

Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina and his party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, was accused of illegally using gifts from political donors to conceal an affair. The Justice Department dropped the charges in 2012 after a jury acquitted Edwards on one count and deadlocked on the others.

Still, Trump’s public statements suggest a president bedeviled by the legal probes he already faces and uncertain what new dangers lie ahead. The investigation into the inaugural committee -- previously unknown before the Journal’s report on Thursday and borne of documents the FBI seized from Cohen, according to the newspaper -- serves as an example.

Trump issued a sequence of four tweets on Thursday morning about Cohen and his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who has also pleaded guilty to federal crimes in Trump’s service.

“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” Trump said, without explaining what he had instructed his lawyer to do. In April, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he didn’t know about hush-money payments Cohen had made to Daniels, an adult movie actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate. Both women allege they had sexual encounters with Trump more than a decade ago.

He concluded the tweets with a two-word tweet: “WITCH HUNT!”

Mueller Mystery

Central to the president’s anxieties could be that the week’s proceedings in federal courts provided Trump and his supporters a window into how much they don’t know about the Mueller’s investigation.

Cohen spent 70 hours talking with Mueller’s prosecutors and provided information Mueller’s team said was useful to their inquiry into “Russia-related matters.” Mueller also said this week in court filings that Flynn provided “substantial assistance” to the investigation over the course of 19 interviews.

Those close to Trump have worried about what Cohen and Flynn may have told Mueller, all of which remains a mystery. Trump has accused Cohen of lying to try to get a reduced sentence.

But that testimony could soon get a public airing. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said that his client is willing to testify publicly after Mueller concludes his probe.

“There will come a time after Mr. Mueller is done with his work that Michael Cohen will be sitting in front of a microphone before a congressional committee and what he has to say about the truth will be judged by the members of Congress listening and then will be up to people to decide whether he has got the facts or not,” Davis said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio’s “Sound On.”

Democratic lawmakers are also likely to investigate revelations that Trump was in the room when Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker discussed a plan for the tabloid to purchase and conceal the stories of women who alleged that they had had affairs with the then-presidential candidate.

That the August 2015 meeting has caught the attention of federal prosecutors was only underscored by a non-prosecution agreement disclosed Wednesday in which American Media Inc. -- the Enquirer’s parent company -- admitted to working with Trump’s campaign.

Political Damage

Within the White House, concern about the developments was largely focused on the political implications, rather than legal difficulties. Trump is believed to be safe from prosecution because of non-binding Justice Department guidelines against indicting a sitting president.

Instead, aides are mostly concerned that the string of Trump associates convicted of crime after crime could prove politically damaging, according to a White House official who asked not to identified discussing internal reaction. There is also growing anxiety over what Mueller will say in a report he’s expected to issue wrapping up the investigation and what Democrats, who take control of the House in less than a month, will do with those findings, the official said.

To Democrats, Trump’s involvement in Cohen’s campaign finance violations may amount to impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” -- on top of whatever Mueller concludes about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, potential collusion by Trump’s campaign, and the president’s possible attempts to obstruct the special counsel’s inquiry.

Democratic congressional leaders have so far dismissed talk of impeachment as premature. And Trump, by arguing that the payments Cohen arranged weren’t a criminal offense, could muddy the waters enough to cause Democrats political damage if they try to remove him from office.

“You look at stories, one after another, they’re all legal,” Trump said Thursday. “The great lawyers that do that stuff are saying there’s nothing illegal.”

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