ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hey Trump, Inc. fans. It's Andrea Bernstein. We're busy putting together season two of Trump, Inc. It's going to launch next month. But in the meantime, we're bringing you an update on a big story we worked on last spring. Remember this one?
MICHAEL COHEN: I’ll do anything to protect Mr. Trump, the family, now Vice President-elect Pence, as well as the campaign. I'd like to keep myself in that little circle of extremely loyal people.
BERNSTEIN: To try to understand Michael Cohen's life, we’re going to follow his paper trail.
ILYA MARRITZ: So many of the people around him have been disbarred, disciplined, or arrested, year after year. Some have been convicted. Cohen has never even been accused.
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BERNSTEIN: Well, as of a Tuesday afternoon in late August, that’s no longer true. In a courtroom in New York, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including tax fraud, lying to a bank, and campaign finance violations. The same hour he was pleading guilty, some 200 miles to the south, a federal jury was reading back charges against someone else who was very important to Donald Trump: his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort — also eight counts, also bank and tax fraud.
The day after these dramatic developments, my Trump, Inc. podcast cohost Ilya Marritz and I talked with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer for a live radio segment breaking down these court actions and their implications. It's gonna sound a little different from the way Trump, Inc. usually does, but we thought you'd be interested. And, don't forget — we’ll be back with season two next month. So keep an eye on your podcast feed, or sign up for our newsletter TrumpIncPodcast.org. Meantime, here's the conversation.
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BRIAN LEHRER: It’s the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning, everyone.
And so we woke up today with President Donald Trump accused, in Michael Cohen's guilty plea, of having directed Cohen to make felony illegal campaign contributions to silence women to help Trump win the election. Out of everything that's been said in the last day, here's probably the most important part, and it's from the plea deal itself in writing, that Cohen admitted to paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, quote, “at the direction of the candidate,” unquote.
So what a twist in the road we thought we were all on, right? For the last year, they’ve been investigating Russia — really more than a year — to see if they made illegal campaign contributions to help Trump win the election.
As it turns out, Trump himself directed illegal campaign contributions to help him win the election, according to Michael Cohen. They’ve been investigating whether Trump conspired with the Russians. As it turns out, Trump conspired with his own fixer, directing Cohen to break the law to help Trump win. And remember, ‘case you're doubting it, Cohen released a tape recording of Trump doing it.
COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, you know?
DONALD TRUMP: Yeah.
COHEN: So that I — gonna do that right away. I've actually come up and I spoke —
TRUMP: Give it to me.
COHEN: — and I've spoken to Allan — Weisselberg — about how to set the whole thing up with —
TRUMP: So what are we going to pay for?
COHEN: — funding. [STUTTERS] Yes. And it’s all the stuff — all the stuff.
TRUMP: You’re not thinking about that.
COHEN: Because here, you know, you’ll never know where that company — you’ll never know what he’s gonna be …
TRUMP: Maybe he gets hit by a truck.
COHEN: Correct. So I’m — I’m all over that, and I spoke to Allan about that. When it comes time for the financing, which will be —
TRUMP: Hey, listen. What financing?
COHEN: Well, I have to pay —
TRUMP: So we’ll pay in cash?
COHEN: No, no, no no no no no.
LEHRER: “Paying in cash?” Trump said. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” said Michael Cohen. This is regarding, as he said at the beginning of the clip, our friend David. That’s David Pecker, who owns the National Enquirer. It was through that that the hush money was paid to bottle up Karen McDougal's claim of having an affair with Trump.
So there's no denying it this time — no saying there was no collusion. There was collusion, and there was direction by Trump to commit crimes to illegally influence the election. And had these women not been silenced through these illegal campaign donations, or if the criminal coverup of the payments that Cohen has now admitted to had become known before Election Day, would a few thousand people have voted differently in Pennsylvania, or in Wisconsin, or Michigan?
We’ll never know, right? But the legitimacy of the election — the election results now becomes a question based on established facts about the President's involvement in campaign crimes, not just something Robert Mueller is investigating. And here is one potentially significant reaction.
It's a tweet from New York Times conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, significant if this becomes a widespread conservative sentiment. He writes, “I've been skeptical about the wisdom and merit of impeachment. Cohen's guilty plea changes that. The President is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. He should resign his office, or be impeached and removed from office.” So that's a tweet from New York Times conservative columnist, Bret Stephens.
So what happens next? How does the President get held accountable, if at all, by the Congress, which has the sole power to do so? If they don't take Bret Stephens’ suggestion directly — or by the voters in midterm congressional elections — how should Democrats or Republicans make this a factor in their campaigns?
Later in the show, we'll ask one Democratic congressmen in a swin— swing district, which voted for Trump: Sean Patrick Maloney from the Hudson Valley, who is also seeking the nomination for New York State Attorney General. He'll be here later.
Joining us now are the co-hosts of our podcast Trump, Inc., Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz. Hi Andrea. Hi Ilya.
BERNSTEIN: Hey, Brian.
MARRITZ: Good morning.
LEHRER: Well, we thought we invited you on for today to talk about the Manafort verdicts, then, boom! How much are we waking up in a post-August 21st new world?
BERNSTEIN: W-what, what an hour on a — on an afternoon in August between 4:00 and 5:00 PM, when two of the people who were most closely connected to President Trump's campaign victory were convicted, both of eight counts, both of them involving tax fraud, both of them involving misrepresentations to banks, and, in Michael Cohen's case, he outlines what sure looks like a criminal conspiracy to violate campaign finance law.
So, it was a dramatic moment in the courtroom in Manhattan, listening to Michael Cohen accept his plea of “guilty,” knowing at the same time that the Manafort jury could be coming back. And of course, I didn't know that until after I was out of the courtroom. But that is what happened. And the way that the counts were with Michael Cohen, he first says, “Yes, I — I didn't declare my income. And I did these things.”
And then all of a sudden he starts talking about the 2016 campaign when he says, “I did this crime, i.e. suppressing what the women were saying — paying money to suppress it — at the direction of the candidate.” And then the judge stopped him and said, “Well, did you do this knowing it was illegal and wrong?” And there was a sigh and a pause, and Michael Cohen said, “Yes, your honor.”
And this was the moment at which it feels like Michael Cohen, who was, uh, pleading guilty to a — a wide assortment of crimes in his past, some involving New York real estate, taxi medallions, a Birkin bag that he sold — a very expensive handbag — and didn't declare a broker's fee that he had charged for brokering the sale of a Birkin bag. All of this, and then suddenly we get to the point where he said, “I did a crime to win the 2016 election at the direction of the candidate for public office.” And that was really a — a stunning turn in all of these investigations and in everything that people have been talking about for two years now, involving Donald Trump, the Russians, collusion. And then all of a sudden it ends up with this moment in federal court in Manhattan.
LEHRER: And so, listeners, our lines are open first for anything you want to ask to understand the complexities of this, because, probably, most of you are not doing what Andrea and I presume — presumably Ilya and I were doing while you were in the courtroom, Andrea.
But I think probably, Ilya, you and I, and so many who work in this business, were sort of glued to our televisions or cable TV, audio apps, in my case, as I was running around town, watching this incredible several hours unfold, where the Manafort conviction and the Cohen plea, and then reactions to them. And then Trump’s appearance in West Virginia at his rally with his first reaction, all came one after another, after another, um, changing our world.
So, listeners, anything you want to ask Andrea or Ilya to clarify details of this for yourself? I'm sure others would appreciate those questions, if you frame them. 212-433-WNYC. 212-433-9692. Or anything you think about the post-August 21st world that we're now living in, and its implications. (212) 433-9692.
So, legal analysts are saying, “It’s unusual that Cohen pleaded guilty without officially entering into a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, while, at the same time, Cohen’s lawyer is going on television to tell prosecutors he's got something to offer.” So here is Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, on Rachel Maddow last night, responding to a question about whether Cohen has spoken to special counsel Robert Mueller's team.
LANNY DAVIS: I can't tell you the answer to that question about contacts between Michael and the special counsel, but I can tell you that, uh, Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel, and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows. Not just about the obvious, uh, possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election — which the Trump Tower meeting was all about — but also knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not, uh, Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on. And we know he publicly cheered it on, but did he also have private information.
LEHRER: Lanny Davis representing Michael Cohen. So Ilya, what's up with Cohen not having a cooperation agreement, while seeming to publicly offer cooperation?
MARRITZ: Right. Well, so not having a cooperation agreement does not preclude cooperation happening. It just means that they have not addressed it for the purposes of the plea that Michael Cohen entered yesterday. And what's more, uh, Cohen will not be sentenced until December, I believe. So that is many months in which the Mueller team may wish to speak with Michael Cohen, may wish to talk with him about the millions of pieces of evidence that have been seized from his home, and his hotel, and his office that they are surely sifting through right now.
Uh, I don't think — [LAUGHS] I don't think there’s — I don't think it's possible to look at what is happening and suppose that Michael Cohen will not cooperate.
BERNSTEIN: I also think that [PAUSE] this is something that is done. People plead guilty because prosecutors convince them that they — if they went to trial, they could be found guilty of a whole lot more than they plead guilty to. That is a run-of-the-mill kind of guilty plea that happens everyday in federal court and in state courts around the country. So it is not a shock that such a thing would happen, especially in light of such a fast-moving investigation that Michael Cohen would choose to say, “Okay, I want to plead guilty to this set of crimes, and put a box around what I can be found convicted of.”
So it isn’t shocking, and there is a lot that can happen. But I — I do think it's important to — to, you know, as Ilya said, to understand that cooperation could happen. One other thing about Lanny Davis: Lanny Davis was one of the lawyers who stood up and represented Michael Cohen in court yesterday. He had two lawyers that more commonly handle criminal cases. So, two other lawyers were at the forefront of that piece of this prosecution. So there may — there may be more chapters.
I mean, one other thing that was very, very striking to me is — in reading the charging documents — is just how — how this sort of filtered its way through the Trump Organization, that there were, according to the documents, there were emails, there were meetings with one or more members of the campaign to discuss these payments.
And then there was a whole lengthy set of procedures, beginning in 2017, to reimburse Michael Cohen for having made these payments. Several people — again — in the Trump Organization, in the President's business were involved in making these payments. And let's just remember, the President said, “I am creating a wall between myself and my business. I am turning over my business to my sons, Don, Jr. and Eric, and to my CFO, Allan Weisselberg,” whose name we heard in that piece of tape.
And after that happens, these individuals are approving these payments to Michael Cohen for what the charging documents say they knew were not legal fees — that they knew that they were these hush money payments.
LEHRER: Um, and I think it's important to note that the other part of that statement that we played by Lanny Davis, maybe we should call Lanny Davis “Cohen's T.V. lawyer” —
BERNSTEIN: [MARRITZ AND BERNSTEIN LAUGH] Well, he’s a member of his legal team.
LEHRER: — like we call Giuliani “Trump's T.V. lawyer.”
BERNSTEIN: Right. [LAUGHS]
LEHRER: Um, but he suggested that Cohen knows big things that the special counsel would want to know, like about when the President knew about the Trump Tower meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, which was offered as part of the Russian government's interest in helping Trump win. That email, you know, surfaced a year ago, stating it was to help the Russian government help Trump.
But do you have reason to believe that Cohen — who we think of in relation to hush money to silence women — that Cohen would actually know about things like that kind of international intrigue, too?
MARRITZ: Well, Cohen was Donald Trump's right-hand guy for a really, really long time. He was walking in and out of the office all the time.
So anything is possible, and it would be reasonable to suppose that he would know a great deal. He also had a campaign email address, which we learned from, uh, his guilty plea yesterday. So that's a new thing. But on the Trump Tower meeting, I think there's a very interesting question about that meeting.
If, as Cohen — if, as Davis has suggested earlier, Cohen is willing to suggest — is willing to say that Trump had advance notice of the Trump Tower meeting, that’s hugely significant. Let's also consider Paul Manafort, [LAUGHS] who com— pleaded guilty, who — excuse me, was convicted yesterday — was in that Trump Tower meeting. He was probably the most knowledgeable person in that meeting about Russian lawyers and Russian law and the kinds of things that would be on a Kremlin-connected lawyer's agenda. Paul Manafort once had an office in Moscow.
So both of these cases are so tantalizing. We can't quite see the outlines of the collusion, but we can see a lot of possible avenues.
LEHRER: Um, one other thing, before we go to some phone calls: Trump's only tweet on this — as of an hour ago, anyway — I don't have it up on my screen right here, but as of an hour ago, Trump's only tweet was, “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen.” [MARRITZ LAUGHS]
That is Trump's only comment on this so far. And of course, this stands in contrast to what Trump said about Cohen after the, uh, raid on Cohen's offices to gather evidence in this case.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [OVER CAMERAS] So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys. Good man. And, uh, it's a disgraceful situation. It's a total witch hunt. I’ve been saying it for a long time.
LEHRER: So actually here's another — here’s another tweet. And, of course, we should say that they didn't break into Cohen's office. They had a search warrant.
BERNSTEIN: Cohen said they were polite.
LEHRER: He did. So here's another tweet from a few minutes ago. “Michael Cohen.” Sorry, this just popped on my screen. Let me get it back. Um, it says, “Michael Cohen pleads guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled.”
Now we're going to have an actual legal analyst, our Jamie Floyd, come in later. So we'll ask her that question, but to the extent that either of you can do it, uh, this is news. Trump is describing Michael Cohen pleading guilty to something that is not a crime.
BERNSTEIN: Well, he says it's not a crime. I mean, it's laid out pretty clearly in the charging documents that, per federal election campaign, uh, law, you cannot make contributions in excess of certain amounts, and you cannot try to influence the course of a campaign through large personal cas— cash contributions. And Michael Cohen said, “I induced a company” — we’re talking about the owners of the National Enquirer — “to make a payment to one woman. And I myself made a payment to another woman.”
MARRITZ: And, you know, let — let’s just consider, if Donald Trump had made those payments himself instead of arran— instead of arranging, urging this sort of elaborate payments system, and reimbursement system, none of this might have happened.
It’s perfectly fine to spend as much money of your own wealth as you like on your campaign. It's because it was structured as a contribution — as a payment from an outside party — in both of these two cases that we have a possible crime.
BERNSTEIN: Or not as a contribution, as a — as a — as a secret contribution that that secret contributions were made. I mean, President Trump may say it's not a crime, but yesterday in federal court, the federal judge, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and Michael Cohen all stood up and said, “I committed a crime.” So that is President Trump's interpretation. I mean, I think the context is, he's flailing here, because this is not part of Mueller's investigation.
He is not, you know — this is not the “13 angry Democrats.” This happened in the Southern District of New York, under the watch of a U.S. Attorney who Trump appointed — who Trump personally interviewed before he appointed. That — that U.S. attorney, Geoffrey Berman, was recused. But then his deputy —
LEHRER: He recused himself because he was appointed by Trump, but his deputy —
BERNSTEIN: — but his deputy, Robert Khuzami, who was also appointed after Jeffrey Berman took office, is the one who prosecuted this case. So this is a — a separate endeavor.
And, also, President Trump has been saying “No collusion. No collusion. No collusion,” for all these years now, but this is not about collusion. This is about campaign finance violations.
Just wanted to say one other thing on what Michael Cohen may know. We know that he was negotiating a deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow during several months of this crucial period — something that President Trump also tried to keep secret from the public for a long, long time.
MARRITZ: This was during the 2016 campaign.
BERNSTEIN: During the campaign, that Michael Cohen was in charge of these negotiations. So we know that about him. And then we know, from this picture that is emerging from these charging documents, of what happened in the Trump Organization, that there were phone calls, there were emails, there was the campaign on one floor of Trump Tower and the Trump Organization on another floor, and people were going up and down stairs, and people were doing Trump Organization business and they were doing campaign business and it all got mixed together. That looks like it is now becoming a very big problem for Donald Trump the president.
LEHRER: And here's another Trump tweet from a few minutes ago, comparing Cohen and Manafort. He says, uh, “Unlike Michael Cohen, Manafort refused to break, make up stories in order to get a deal.” And then he writes about Manafort, “Such respect for a brave man.” So I think we see at least the beginnings of Trump's political defense, uh, ‘cause it's [PAUSE] not a legal defense. It's a political defense. Um, “Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to break, make up stories in order to get a deal.” So he's accusing Cohen of making this all up.
MARRITZ: Yeah. And I think, uh, anybody who reads that, the — the “P word” is going to pop into their head: “pardon.” You wonder, does Michael Cohen get a pardon out of all of this? I — I have no idea whether he will or not, but obviously Cohen still enjoys — uh, excuse me — obviously Manafort enjoys the continued respect of the President.
MARRITZ: Which, uh, Michael Cohen does not. Uh, Andrea and I both were — were in that Alexandria courtroom. We both covered that trial. Um, it is [LONG PAUSE] a persistent question why Paul Manafort fought the charges rather than taking a plea. He was convicted on 8 out of 18 counts in the end. Um, and he goes to trial again next month in D.C. on even more serious charges of, uh — of conspiracy and money laundering.
LEHRER: My guests are the cohosts of our Trump, Inc. podcast, Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz. And Melissa in Jackson Heights, you’re on WNYC. Hi, Melissa.
MELISSA: Hi. I just had a — a question. I hope it's not too idiotic, but I was wondering what, um, becomes of the material that Judge Kimba Wood was reviewing from, uh, Cohen's office and the special master report that was just issued. Now that he's pled guilty is, um — is that material no longer germane? Anyway, I'll take my answer off the air.
BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean, it appears to have been very germane to the charges that were filed. So far as we know, the charges were filed on the basis of evidence that was seized in that search warrant.
LEHRER: But I think she's asking, if there are all kinds of other things — more phone call recordings of Trump and Cohen, but this time they're talking about Russian collusion, or whatever other financial crimes Trump may have committed, if any, in any of those categories … Um, because this plea deal has already been concluded, and the — any of those other possible pieces of evidence are not relevant to the plea deal, I think she's asking what becomes of those now.
BERNSTEIN: Well, they're in the hands of prosecutors. I mean, they've now put a box around the crimes that Michael Cohen says he's guilty of. So, if there are other threads, we may never know.
On the other hand, as we were discussing, if there are further discussions with Bob Mueller's prosecutors about additional charges, some of it could become relevant again.
Also, this information belongs to Michael Cohen. So he is able to release any of it that he wants the public to know about at any time or any other prosecutors. I mean, he — he also controls it, as well as the Southern District.
LEHRER: Michael in Woodbridge, you’re on WNYC. Hi, Michael.
MICHAEL: Uh, thank you for, uh, having me. I just wanted to say that Michael Cohen was, uh — had all these charges against him. And of course, he's going to try and say that Trump did something illegally so he can get out of it. How gullible are these people? I don't get it.
LEHRER: But, you know, Michael, there's that tape, for example, that we played of Cohen and Trump on the phone arranging this payment — uh, one of the payments that are in question. So there's evidence that Trump did what Michael Cohen says he did.
MICHAEL: I under— I understand that, but Trump did not hold a knife or a gun to him and say that, “You’re doing an illegal act.” Donald Trump's not a lawyer. He didn't know. He was trying to cover his butt. Sure, he slept with them ladies, and then was trying to get it out. You know what?
LEHRER: He did [INDISTINCT].
MICHAEL: It had nothing to do with what's going on in this world. It really doesn’t. Who he slept with, who he paid off to not sleep with. You know what I'm saying? It's just sad that people are so gullible, because he was going to be thrown in jail for all these charges, so he's singing like a canary and he's making stuff up.
BERNSTEIN: Well, if he is making stuff up, then he could be charged with perjury, which the judge made quite clear to Michael Cohen yesterday, that, when he stood up in court, “If you don't tell the truth, you could be charged with additional crimes.” So there is that. If you are a candidate running a campaign and a criminal violation of campaign finance law has occurred, the implication is you may be responsible.
Now it's a whole other separate question — which I know you're going to discuss later in the show — what President Trump's legal situation is now, but it is a, uh — you know, now we know from Michael Cohen — from what he said — I mean, you cannot stand up in federal court and make up things.
MARRITZ: And, you know, and John — John Edwards, the Democratic candidate for president some years ago was charged with similar crimes. There was, I believe, a mistrial in that case, but these — this is — this is stuff that has been tried before. These are — these are not new kinds of violations,
LEHRER: Making, specifically, illegal campaign donations —
MARRITZ: — also to cover up an affair.
LEHRER: — to cover up an affair. Hiding it because it's covering up an affair. But —
MARRITZ: Ironically, reported in the National Inquirer.
LEHRER: But when we get into the politics of now — of this now — and Michael, we really appreciate your call — um, there are going to be a lot of Michaels in Woodbridge around the country who will say, “Yeah. So what? We know that this about Donald Trump. He probably slept with those women,” though Trump denies it to this day. “Um, he probably made those hush money payments, but that's not relevant to what's going on in the world.” Michael said something very much like that.
So if we're worried about immigration, if we're worried about Russia and Iran, if we're worried about the big things in the world, um, the political argument probably on … You know, if — if political analysts are looking for that 35% or 40% solid Trump base to start eroding, it either will or it won't.
But if it doesn’t, partly, it's because people will say, “Yeah, we know, you know. Trump's kind of a sleazy guy. Uh, but he's our sleazy guy who's working on behalf of us while the elite Democrats aren’t."
BERNSTEIN: Well, that may be the case. What was striking to me yesterday is Robert Khuzami — and, again, he is an appointee that was made under the current Trump Justice Department, the — the deputy U.S. attorney in the Southern District — that he stood up and he said, “What today's actions in court show is that we are a nation of laws, and that you cannot violate laws with impunity.”
Now this is standard-issue stuff. I've heard prosecutors say that over and over again. But I think we are a moment — at a moment in history where that feels like a question, in large part because of what the President says. Are we a nation of laws? Are we all governed by a common set of understanding? And what was so striking yesterday —
LEHRER: And — and there are, but — in Trump's argument in this tweet this morning is when he brings up that Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled. Now, I don't know — we’ll have to look it up, the size of that — in this case, it’s $280,000 of an illegal campaign donation directed by Trump.
Um, and, uh, I don't know how big the Obama campaign was, but not every campaign finance violation — which many campaigns find themselves guilty of in one way or another — wind up being described as “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
MARRITZ: Well, they don't all involve the kind of coordination that appears to have happened here. And — and one more thing in response to the caller. Uh, I frankly agree. I mean, I think — I think this feels far from the Russia investigation, perhaps. And perhaps it may not matter to a lot of people if — uh, if — if a hush money payment was made when so much else is at stake, but Michael Cohen can't just sing and make up crimes and get convictions.
It doesn't work that way in our justice system. You have to have corroborating witnesses; evidence, documentation to support those potential crimes. That's where convictions come from. So I do think it would be a mistake to suggest that Michael Cohen is going to make things up out of whole cloth and bring down the presidency. It — it is impossible for it to work that way.
LEHRER: Raj, in Middlesex County, you're on WNYC. Hi, Raj.
RAJ: Hey, Brian. Thanks for taking the call. So I — I have a slightly different twist to this whole thing. One is, I agree with the sort of discussion about politically versus what's legal, right? Because for the legal, right, everybody might say, “He broke the law. So what? You know, put Hillary in jail, but this guy, no. He's our guy, and — and we like him and everything that he does is fine and we're going to live with it.”
But I have a bigger question, is that, legally speaking, also, at this point of time, I get the Justice Department, because they have a policy all written or unwritten under the rules, which says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. And also the fact that, at this point of time, he — there is really no clear, clear precedent in terms of what can or can not be a sitting president do. The only option that is there so far, that I'm aware of, is the House of Representative. So long as the House Intelligence Committee is controlled by Devin Nunes and company, who refuse to believe that they need to even ask the question, and — on the contrary, they are breaking, as far as I'm aware — I may be partial — on every possible precedent, and giving the information from the, uh — the legislative body to the executive body. And what — where — what does it, I mean, what — what does it all mean? Actually, it comes to nothing.
LEHRER: Well, maybe comes to nothing. Raj, thank you so much.
So, Andrea, to Raj’s question, I'm going to ask you. Now that you've been wearing your investigative reporter’s hat so far this half-hour, to put on your political analyst hat, uh, and tell me if there are any indications yet that what New York Times conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, tweeted this morning has any resonance among House Republicans. Uh, that this changes the impeachment question for Bret Stephens, that he used to say, “No, don't focus on impeachment.” Now, he, as a conservative, believes that Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors and should resign or be impeached. Any indication yet where this goes in the Republican House?
BERNSTEIN: Well, if past is prologue, then the answer is that this will be the same, that it will be dismissed. And when — when Speaker Ryan was asked about this yesterday, he said, “Well, I need to — to read the documents,” essentially.
LEHRER: That’s fair.
BERNSTEIN: So I think that we don't really have any reason to believe that this Republican House, at this moment, is going to change course, particularly with the sensitive elections coming up. What happens after that, I think, depends a lot on what happens with the election. I do want to say that I think it is — in both of these cases … One of the things that was stunning about this, just sort of pulling back for a moment from the campaign violence — campaign finance violations, is the issue of the rule of law.
Both Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are now, in the eyes of the law, guilty of stealing — in Michael Cohen's case, $1.5 million from the U.S. taxpayers; in Paul Manafort's case, also millions of dollars from the U.S. taxpayers. And, you know, think about if somebody walked into your house and stole millions of dollars. You think that we would think that was bad.
There are so many shell companies involved in these white-collar crimes. They're so hard to trace. There were so many shell companies involved in these campaign finance hush money situations. And this does show that you, one, can be held accountable in a court of law for this kind of violation. I think that is also a significant moment in American history, particularly at this moment where there is so much “what about”-ism? “What about what Obama did? Why should what I did be taken seriously when somebody else did this thing?” Well, up to now in our country, there has been a standard. If you violate the law, you should be held to account. It has been — if anything, under-applied when it comes to white-collar crime.
So I think that there’s — this is a watershed moment, in that, you can't just do these things. That's the message, at least for today.
MARRITZ: I want to remind the listener too. There are other — there are laws— active lawsuits against Trump and the Trump Organization right now. There's one here in New York, uh, concerning the Trump Foundation. That's going to get going in October.
So, uh, whether there's an impeachment or not, and that — that’s something for really — for legal scholars to discuss. Uh, that case, the Summer Zervos case, which is a defama— defamation suit against the President, that is also proceeding. So the, like, legal storm clouds remain, and they're gathering.
LEHRER: I will just note that about half our caller-board is Trump supporters saying various versions of “So what?,” or, “This all was launched illegitimately through the origins of the Mueller investigation, dossier,” uh — uh — uh — uh — warrant, search warrant, FISA, blah blah blah. Uh — uh, one — one way or another. So just a little, you know, totally unscientific sample of that. There are people out there ready to say, “No, no, no. This is nothing.”
And Fox News, through all this yesterday, spent much more time on the case of a college student whose body was found murdered, and her alleged killer was a Mexican national named Rivera who's here illegally.
“So don't look that the President of the United States, uh, has been charged with directing crimes. Look at the bad dark people.” And that's not over because of what, uh, what happened yesterday.
BERNSTEIN: I am sure not. I am sure that the misdirection that we have been living in — that you shouldn't look at some crimes because some other crime may have occurred — is not going to stop.
What may happen is, this may give pause to — and may affect the course of — investigations as they go forward, and people’s decisions. Michael Cohen, in his rather spectacular guilty plea yesterday, set a standard. I mean, he is somebody who was so close to President Trump in every way. That he did this is — the significance cannot be underestimated because he was somebody who was in charge. He was a bagman. He was in charge of transferring payments to protect his client. Bagmen don't usually sing, or, in the words of President Trump, “act like rats.” But Michael Cohen, yesterday in court, had this sort of, you know — with the sighs, and the pauses, and the body language, and him saying, “Yes, I am a lawyer. I understand the law. I understand what I did was wrong.” That was a significant moment.
MARRITZ: One reason that, you know, we created the Trump, Inc. podcast — and we're coming back for season two next month, by the way, so please listen — is — is precisely because we wanted to step away for a little bit from the political question — “Witch hunt,” “Is this fair? Is this not fair?” “Is Robert Mueller out of control?” — and actually try to understand the implications of a active businessman-president, who is bringing his own business associates and people with their own active business networks to Washington who have enormous influence on him and how policy is made. Uh, so, uh — so for callers who are skeptical, please listen to our podcast. Please also think about, try — think about — thinking about things that way.
LEHRER: So before you go, precisely to that point, let me play one more clip from the prosecutor's announcement of Cohen's guilty plea yesterday. And this is relevant to what your podcast, Trump, Inc., is usually about — Trump’s business operations, rather than his politics per se. This is deputy U.S. attorney, here in Manhattan, Robert Khuzami, on the Cohen guilty plea.
ROBERT KHUZAMI: Mr. Cohen plead guilty to two campaign finance charges, one for causing an unlawful corporate contribution, and a second one for personally making an excessive personal contribution, both for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.
In addition, what he did was he worked to pay money to silence two women who had information that he believed would be detrimental to the 2016 campaign, and to the candidate and the campaign. In addition, Mr. Cohen, uh, sought reimbursement, uh, for that money by submitting invoi— invoices to the candidate’s company which were untrue and false. They indicated that the reimbursement was for services rendered for the year 2017, when, in fact, those invoices were a sham. He provided no legal services for the year 2017, and it was simply a means to obtain reimbursement for the unlawful campaign contribution.
LEHRER: The prosecutor in the Cohen case yesterday. So, Ilya, it’s the last part of that. It's the “fraudulent invoices to the candidate's company to get reimbursement for these illegal campaign contributions.” So if the President of the United States cannot be indicted while in office — and I know that's a matter of dispute — but if he can't, what about his corporation, that he supposedly turned over to his sons?
MARRITZ: Well, that's a fascinating question to look into. I think we are learning so much about the corporation right now, just in the course of the past few months.
And I'd direct people again to the Trump Organization, uh — excuse me — the Trump Foundation lawsuit, which, this concerned, uh, charitable, char— uh, charitable activities of the Trump Foundation during the campaign. And if you read that lawsuit, and if you read some of the partial transcripts from Allan Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, you come — you come quickly to the conclusion that the Trump Or— Trump Foundation was run as a branch of the Trump Organization, the for-profit business, and pretty much everything was run at the personal direction of Donald Trump. He would say, “Move money here, take money from there, and put it in this place.” And that's what Allan Weisselberg would do.
BERNSTEIN: Brian, in the last season of Trump bank, we did an episode on Michael Cohen. And one of the things that we found that was so striking is that for 20 years, Michael Cohen has had a series of business partners and business association — associates who have been convicted, arrested, disbarred.
It is an incredible trail. And one of the things we wondered was, “Will it ever catch up to him?” Well, yesterday, it did. And now it puts the spotlight on his former boss, President Trump. Will it catch up with him?
You can find that episode at TrumpIncPodcast.org, and, as Ilya said, our next season is coming next month.
LEHRER: Alright, TrumpIncPodcast.org. Co-hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, thanks a lot.
MARRITZ: Thank you.
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