The White House was rocked by twin legal bombshells on Tuesday that will likely have major consequences for the Mueller investigation, the midterm elections and Donald Trump's legacy as US president. (Photo: CGTN)
Double trouble for Trump
Long-time Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts – and implicated the president in a crime – and former senior aide Paul Manafort was found guilty of financial wrongdoing on eight charges.
The headline accusation from Cohen is that he was directed to make illegal campaign finance contributions by Trump. The president initially denied any knowledge of the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal, women he is alleged to have had affairs with, but slowly backtracked over the past year.
This creates a new avenue of danger for the president – even if he probably can't be indicted as a co-conspirator while in the White House – as the Cohen trial was not part of the Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and collusion with the Trump campaign.
The Cohen claim opens the door to a potential impeachable offense, whatever the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
A key question now is the extent to which Cohen, Trump's longtime fixer, is prepared to cooperate with prosecutors – and Mueller – ahead of sentencing in December. The plea deal Cohen agreed limits the amount of jail time he will serve to just over five years, but further cooperation could see greater leniency.
According to Cohen's lawyer Lanny Davis, his client is very happy to talk. "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," Davis told MSNBC on Tuesday evening.
This spells danger for Trump, who has cut Cohen adrift.
The conviction of Manafort was the first courtroom victory for Mueller's team, and strengthens the special counsel against accusations of a "witch hunt" – even though the charges were not directly related to the Russia investigation.
Manafort is a potentially pivotal witness for Mueller, but maintained his innocence throughout his trial and is not believed to have offered any cooperation to the special counsel.
There has been speculation that Manafort is holding out for a presidential pardon – a move that would be truly explosive. After being found guilty on eight counts that could put him in prison for the rest of his life, the former campaign chair, who faces another trial in September, will likely have more pressure put on him to talk.
Mueller has already secured guilty pleas for several members of Trump's campaign staff.
One of those is Michael Flynn, who was briefly US national security adviser.
His trial has been delayed again at the request of Mueller, leading to speculation that he is being held back to act as a witness. Several other people in the Trump orbit have been interviewed by Mueller, and could yet face charges.
Midterms pivotal for Trump
So where could this lead? In the short term, November's midterm elections are the focus.
Republicans currently control both houses of Congress. Democrats are battling to take the House and the Senate -- and would almost certainly launch investigations into Trump's actions if they were to take committee chairmanships.
Post-midterms, impeachment is the biggest political implication for Trump.
Before the Cohen accusation, many Democrats were unwilling to say publicly that they would seek to impeach the president if they won majorities in Congress. There was a fear that such a call would only motivate Trump's supporters and turn off independents.
After the Cohen intervention, voices calling for impeachment may grow louder.
And Republicans in Congress are in even more of a bind. They have largely stuck by Trump, despite disagreements over his policies – particularly trade.
Until the midterms, that is likely to continue. The Republican cart is closely tied to Trump's horse. But what happens in the November elections will likely determine whether Republicans stay with Trump.
A poor performance would weaken the president and give Republicans cover to turn against him ahead of 2020.
Tuesday's guilty pleas, accusations and convictions were extraordinary, but not terminal to a president who has shown before that the normal rules don't apply.
All eyes will now be on how Trump reacts as pressure builds – a pardon, a firing, or just another Twitter outburst.