Donald Trump’s former fixer surrenders to the FBI over porn star payment

The president’s longtime attorney pleaded guilty Tuesday on multiple counts of fraud and campaign finance violations.

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Michael Cohen was Trump’s long-time attorney who, during the campaign, set up a shell company to pay porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in exchange for her silence over an alleged affair with Trump. Legally speaking, Cohen’s number has been up for a while. But even so, his unique history with the president makes today a very dangerous one for Donald Trump, as Cohen surrenders to authorities and prepares to plead guilty for a raft of crimes, some of which are linked directly to the Trump campaign.

He has been under investigation by a federal grand jury in New York for several months now, looking into Cohen both for the Daniels payment, which, as it happened during the campaign, counts as an illegal campaign contribution. Cohen was also being investigated for other unrelated crimes including tax and bank fraud.

The case was referred to the US Attorney’s office for the southern district of New York by the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is being led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, in April. Soon after, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, leading the president to spin out in a crazed Twitter rampage in which he fumed that “attorney client privilege is dead”.

Cohen surrendered to the FBI in New York on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a court proceeding in which he plead guilty to multiple counts of tax fraud and bank fraud related to his New York taxi company, as well as those thorny campaign finance law violations arising from the Stormy Daniels payoff. It is those last which will give Trumpworld the most headaches to come, and it is some measure of how serious the situation is that the publicity of legal confirmation that the president illegally had a porn star paid off is not the angle most likely to worry the president's allies today.

When it first surfaced that Cohen had paid Daniels $130,000 on his behalf Trump denied having asked him to do so, telling reporters on Air Force One that “you’ll have to ask Michael” about the payment. But he was lying. In July, audio tape surfaced of the two discussing giving cash to Daniels for her silence. It seems that Cohen had recorded the audio himself, and, sensing that the president was throwing him to the wolves, he appears to have leaked it to the media himself.

The fact that the president paid off a porn star to keep quiet about their affair – which, preposterously, Trump still denies – has no longer really been in doubt since the tape emerged. But the fact that campaign finance violations are among the crimes Cohen is pleading guilty to is a key part of why this development is such bad news for the president, as it raises the spectre of criminal behaviour by the campaign itself – criminal behaviour Trump is on tape discussing.

(In a magnificently bonkers exercise in desperate straw-grasping, Trump’s current lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has tried to claim that the president said “don’t pay with cash” on the tape instead of “do we pay cash?”.)

It is unclear as yet whether Trump will be directly named in the charge documents in or even charged with a crime himself in connection with Cohen’s plea deal, or whether this development means that Cohen is now cooperating fully with the Mueller investigation.

Some as-yet unconfirmed reports have suggested that Cohen’s plea deal includes three to five years of jail time, and the Wall Street Journal is reporting that his deal with prosecutors does not contain a requirement to cooperate with prosecutors against Trump, so it is entirely possible that Cohen, who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, has simply entered a guilty plea to avoid a trial rather than come to an agreement to work with investigators looking into his former boss.

Even setting that possibility aside, the fact that in paying off Daniels Cohen committed campaign finance violations is now uncontested in the eyes of the law. Even if he isn't cooperating with prosecutors, that’s still going to be difficult for Trump’s allies to defend.

But the tantalising possibility that Cohen has flipped looks more plausible this afternoon. That would be the worst possible outcome for Trump. Cohen, as his fixer, knows where all the bodies are buried – and may well have more secret recordings too.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.