Morning News Brief: Paul Manafort And Michael Cohen Cases

Aug 22, 2018
Originally published on August 22, 2018 10:14 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every day we try to push the story forward to give you a sense of how things are going to unfold today, but you can't understand what happens today unless you understand the extraordinary events that unfolded yesterday. Before the analysis, we're going to give you the snapshot. Here we go. It was just before 5 o'clock yesterday when two men, separated by hundreds of miles but united by President Trump, were both declared guilty of multiple federal crimes.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. So in Virginia, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted by a jury on eight tax and fraud charges. And in New York, the president's former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to five charges of tax evasion, one of falsifying submissions to a bank and two counts involving unlawful campaign contributions.

MARTIN: OK. We have got an all-star team of NPR correspondents here to guide us through what all of this means. Ryan Lucas and Carrie Johnson cover the Justice Department. Scott Detrow covers Congress and a lot of political stuff. Thanks, you guys, for being here.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Ryan, let's start with you. The big standout here is the unlawful campaign contribution plea from Michael Cohen. He explicitly said - told a judge - that this was about trying to cover up alleged affairs Donald Trump had with two women. What else did he say?

LUCAS: Well, although the women were not specifically named yesterday, the facts line up with the payments that were made to the former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the adult film star Stormy Daniels. We've talked a lot about both of them. Both women, of course, say that they had affairs with Trump several years ago. This is something that the White House denies. And the specific charges here are causing an unlawful corporate contribution and an excessive campaign contribution.

Now, speaking in non-legalese, what that breaks down to is this - that Cohen played a role in getting the parent company of the National Enquirer tabloid to pay $150,000 for the rights to McDougal's story about her alleged affair with Trump. And then with Daniels, Cohen paid her $130,000 himself through a shell company. Both payments happened in the run-up to the 2016 election. And in court papers, it's made clear that these payments were made to kill the stories and, quote, "influence the election." And at his hearing yesterday in New York, Cohen said he made those payments in coordination and at the direction of Trump.

MARTIN: Right. Do we know if this was a plea deal in exchange for cooperation with the special counsel, Robert Mueller?

LUCAS: Cohen's plea agreement does not include a provision about cooperation. But it's very important to note here that that does not preclude cooperation, including with special counsel Robert Mueller. Remember, Cohen worked as Trump's lawyer and fixer. He's understood to have a lot of knowledge about Trump's business, about Trump's personal matters.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: Which is a cause of concern, of course, to those in the White House and the president himself. Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, last night on MSNBC wouldn't get into any possible contacts that they've had thus far with Mueller's office. But he said that Cohen has information, and he's willing to share it. Here's a short clip of Davis.

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LANNY DAVIS: I can tell you that 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.

MARTIN: But it was interesting because the judge in the case at one point yesterday with Michael Cohen asked him, are you pleading guilty because you are guilty, suspecting that he could have struck some kind of plea deal. But Cohen responded, yes, I am guilty.

I want to turn to Paul Manafort's conviction. Carrie Johnson, you've been covering this trial for us since the beginning. What was your big takeaway? I mean, there are some Trump supporters who were pointing out, hey, 10 of these counts were declared a mistrial.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One takeaway is that Paul Manafort was convicted of eight felony charges. He's 69 years old. He could face as much as seven to 10 years in prison on those charges alone. That could be most of the rest of his life, so a very serious result for Paul Manafort. Another takeaway, Rachel, is that President Trump and his allies have been calling this special counsel investigation a witch hunt. They have now won their first major court test. This was the first prosecution they actually brought to court. And they have convicted the former campaign chairman for a critical period in 2016, Paul Manafort, of felony offenses. Trump didn't come up too much in the trial, Rachel. But remember, Manafort was having severe financial problems in 2016. He worked on the Trump campaign for free. And there are still questions about why he did that and what he got in return.

MARTIN: But as I mentioned, I mean, President Trump and his supporters - I mean, Cohen is different, right? There are direct links to President Trump that can be really damaging. And we'll talk about where that moves. But the Manafort conviction, I mean, Trump is saying, this had nothing to do with me, there's no reference to collusion.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, Paul Manafort is still somebody who ran President Trump's presidential campaign at a very key moment. Remember, in the lead up to the Republican National Convention, there was all this talk of a brokered convention. Could Ted Cruz or somebody else steal the nomination from Donald Trump? The person who steered his campaign through a tough period was Paul Manafort, and now he's been found guilty on very serious crimes.

JOHNSON: And I'd also add, Rachel, that remember, Paul Manafort attended that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and several Russians. And Paul Manafort, also according to this trial testimony, had links to several pro-Kremlin Ukrainian businessmen who are very wealthy. There are things that Paul Manafort does know about Russia. The question moving forward right now is whether Paul Manafort is going to be sufficiently squeezed to actually strike a plea deal before his trial next month in Washington, D.C., or whether President Trump might actually decide to pardon Paul Manafort, which has happened in Iran–Contra and other big political scandals in the past.

MARTIN: So speaking of this, this was a lot of the speculation yesterday, that the president was going to go to this rally in West Virginia. And he was going to have a stage. And he was going to have an audience. And what if he just decided to pardon Paul Manafort? Did that happen, Scott?

DETROW: That did not happen. President Trump did not say too much about all of these developments last night at the rally. That's typically the case. He does not get into these at rallies too much. It's usually in the Twitter feed the next morning, so we'll have to watch that today. But, you know, President Trump's argument all along has been this has nothing to do with Russia, and this has nothing to do with me. And that's why the Cohen plea is such a big deal because the phrase in coordination and at the direction of the candidate, that's President Trump.

Now we have in a court of law a top adviser to the president saying he did something against the law at the direction of the president. That is very hard to dismiss. And does that affect President Trump's standing in the polls? Does that affect how his Republican allies in Congress view him? That remains to be seen. But this is a serious development.

MARTIN: I was watching CNN last night, and Jen Psaki, former senior aide to Barack Obama, was almost giddy. I mean, she just had this huge grin on her face as she's talking about this. Democrats clearly poised to pounce?

DETROW: Yes. They had been talking more and more about corruption, about ethics issues, along with the other big-picture themes of this election. And, you know, we haven't even mentioned the fact that a House Republican was indicted on a whole different case yesterday. Democrats have a lot to talk about.

MARTIN: Right, Duncan Hunter. Just real quick, where does this go, Ryan, for the president now?

LUCAS: Well, I think that there are a lot of nerves, probably, in the White House right now when you have a former campaign who has been convicted on eight counts and you have your former personal lawyer and fixer pleading guilty. Two possibilities there for possible cooperation with the special counsel.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Ryan Lucas, Carrie Johnson and Scott Detrow. Thanks, you guys.

DETROW: Thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK, remember, it was just Monday Microsoft announced a new Russian hacking effort against the U.S. Senate and some U.S. political groups. Now Facebook has shared details of a sprawling campaign out of Iran to spread misinformation.

GREENE: And NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to talk about it. Alina, I just think about all the news we were just covering linked to the Russia special counsel investigation, campaign interference by Russia. Now we're talking about...

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It's a lot.

GREENE: ...A whole different country, Iran. So what exactly did Facebook announce?

SELYUKH: Right. So Facebook says it has shut down a massive disinformation campaign that originated in Iran and targeted users not just in the U.K. or the U.S., where Facebook is particularly widely used, but also in the Middle East and Latin America. Altogether, Facebook says it took down 652 accounts, pages, groups on Facebook and on Instagram that were all coordinated, falsely posing as news or civil society organizations, spreading political disinformation, going back almost a decade. They ran thousands of dollars' worth of ads. They posted in English, Arabic and Farsi, and all together, had almost a million followers around the world.

GREENE: Wow. The scope of this - going back almost a decade, talking about more than 600 accounts, I mean, this is, like, a global reach. How did Facebook come across this now?

SELYUKH: Yeah. So this is definitely a first announcement of this magnitude to come from Facebook about a campaign out of Iran. To add to that, actually, Twitter also suspended almost 300 accounts also for coordinated manipulation, also allegedly from Iran. To your question, Facebook says the core bit of the news was tipped off originally by the cybersecurity firm FireEye. And FireEye, in its own report, says that this was a network of accounts pushing, essentially, policies favorable to Iran, narratives that include anti-Saudi themes, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian themes, support for U.S. policies favorable to Iran like the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

And FireEye points out that what all this demonstrates is that as much as the discourse here in the U.S. is focused on Russia and how its influence campaigns may have factored into the 2016 election, we're now seeing new actors, nation states, getting in on this world of Internet-driven, social media-driven influence operations to shape political discourse.

GREENE: Yeah, you're right. I mean, so much focus in Congress and the intelligence agencies have been on Russia, it seems, in American politics. This sounds like it's a new phase. Like, does this stuff have anything at all to do with U.S. politics and the midterm elections?

SELYUKH: Not directly yet. The tech companies are certainly mindful of the timing. They are eager to show that they're getting aggressive on cybercrime as we get close to the November Election Day. FireEye says that the massive Iranian disinformation campaign did feature some Trump-themed messaging and some liberal-leaning messaging, but in general, doesn't seem designed to influence the midterms. On Russia, similarly, an executive at another cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, told me that he, too, has not seen any significant activity targeted at the midterms in terms of disinformation.

That said, all this goes to show that in a matter of a decade, we went from social media being something that we use for family, friends and news to now having a hearing on the Senate Intelligence Committee about media and disinformation. That's coming up on September 5.

GREENE: Yeah, amazing to step back and see where we have come. NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thanks a lot, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

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