clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s Manafort-Cohen tweetstorm, explained

Trump turns on his former lawyer Michael Cohen and paints his former campaign chair Paul Manafort as a martyr.

Former Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Enters Plea Deal Over Tax And Bank Fraud And Campaign Finance Violations
Michael Cohen.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump was uncharacteristically quiet about the legal troubles of his former associates on Tuesday, but he broke his silence Wednesday morning by offering some rather valuable legal advice:

It’s always nice when you can laugh about your former attorney implicating you in federal crimes.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and longtime fixer, pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight counts in a Manhattan federal court, including campaign finance violations that involved making and arranging hush money payments to women during the 2016 election.

That includes the $130,000 payoff to porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her silent about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. (Cohen also faces tax evasion charges related to his taxi business.)

And Cohen’s admission in court that he made that Daniels hush money payment to “influence the election,” and that he did so “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, strongly implicates the president of the United States.

Trump’s first instinct seemed to be … humor. But that didn’t last long.

Trump tries to sound cavalier on Twitter — then slowly becomes unglued

Cohen’s confession came at the same time that Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was found guilty on eight counts, including filing false income tax returns and bank fraud.

So although Trump started off the morning joking about Cohen’s less-than-stellar legal services, he quickly turned to Manafort, portraying him as a persecuted martyr and Cohen as a lying snitch:

Trump refers to the crimes of “brave man” Manafort as a “12 year old tax case,” though the oldest charge refers to 2010 to 2014 (false income tax return), and the most recent bank fraud charge deals with the time period from 2015 to January 2017.

Trump also tried to claim that because “a large number of counts” couldn’t be decided in Manafort’s case, it must be a witch hunt.

The jury couldn’t reach a consensus on 10 of the 18 counts, finding Manafort guilty on just eight of them. But that’s because the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on those 10 — not because Manafort was acquitted on those charges. Federal prosecutors have the option of trying him again on those remaining 10 charges or just letting it go and accepting what they got.

And Manafort still faces another, separate trial in September, in Washington, DC, on seven additional charges.

So, in other words, despite Trump’s best efforts to portray him as such, Manafort is far from an innocent man who was railroaded here.

Then it got even weirder.

Though Trump had just claimed in a tweet not 15 minutes prior that Cohen chose to “make up stories in order to get a ‘deal,’” he proceeded to argue that the crimes Cohen pleaded guilty to aren’t actually crimes anyway:

Trump’s aside about Obama seems to be in reference to a $375,000 fine Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was forced to pay to the Federal Election Commission in 2013 for “campaign reporting violations.”

It was a record fine, to be sure — Politico reported at the time that it was “one of the largest fees ever levied against a presidential campaign.” But as Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told Vox’s Dylan Scott Wednesday, there’s a big difference between criminal convictions like Cohen’s and civil violations like Obama’s, and “inadvertent violations like Obama’s are punished civilly by the FEC.” (It should be noted that Trump himself got dinged by the FEC too.)

Cohen, on the other hand, committed actual crimes. As Deputy US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami laid out after Cohen’s plea, “It is illegal for corporations to make contributions to candidates, and it is illegal to make contributions in excess of the amount that Congress set for individuals.”

Trump’s distorted attacks on Cohen are an attempt to distract from the seriousness of the allegations his onetime fixer laid out against Trump. But it’s not easy to spin the guilty plea and felony conviction of former associates.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.