Trump downplays Cohen role, says co-operating with prosecutors 'should almost be illegal'
U.S. president also predicts there would be market calamity if he's impeached
U.S. President Donald Trump dug in to his denials of wrongdoing as the White House struggled to manage the fallout from allegations that he orchestrated a campaign coverup to buy the silence of two women who have claimed they had affairs with him.
Before dawn Thursday, Trump again tweeted there had been no collusion between his campaign and Russia, a reference to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
There is no such federal crime for collusion. The president could be damaged politically should there be findings of conspiracy or obstruction of justice in a report Mueller is expected to deliver at the conclusion of the investigation.
Trump also accused his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, of "making up stories" to get a "great deal" from prosecutors.
The president, in a Fox & Friends interview that aired Thursday and was taped the day before, downplayed his involvement with Cohen, who worked for him for a decade, saying he was just a "part-time attorney" who had many other clients.
He also suggested that Cohen's legal trouble stemmed from his other businesses, including involvement with the New York City taxi cab industry, and that he decided to offer "lies" about Trump to reduce his own legal exposure.
Criticizes 'flipping' for prosecution
He then delivered a stunning broadside against suspects turning state's evidence and acting as a witness for the prosecution, a staple of the criminal justice system.
"It's called flipping and it almost should be illegal," Trump said. "In all fairness to him, most people are going to do that."
Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight charges, including campaign finance violations that he said he carried out in co-ordination with Trump. Behind closed doors, Trump expressed worry and frustration that a man intimately familiar with his political, personal and business dealings for more than a decade had turned on him.
Yet the White House signalled no clear strategy for managing the fallout. At a briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted at least seven times that Trump had done nothing wrong and was not the subject of criminal charges. She referred substantive questions to the president's personal counsel, Rudy Giuliani, who was at a golf course in Scotland.
In the interview, Trump argued, incorrectly, that the hush-money payouts weren't "even a campaign violation" because he subsequently reimbursed Cohen for the payments personally instead of with campaign funds. Federal law restricts how much individuals can donate to a campaign, bars corporations from making direct contributions and requires the disclosure of transactions.
Cohen said Tuesday he secretly used shell companies to make payments used to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.
Praises Manafort's loyalty
Trump has insisted that he only found out about the payments after they were made, despite the release of a September 2016 taped conversation in which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing a deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair she said she had with Trump. It has been reported that prosecutors are in possession of several more recordings, although their details are not yet clear.
The White House denied the president had lied, with Sanders calling the assertion "ridiculous." Yet she offered no explanation for Trump's shifting accounts.
As Trump vented his frustration, White House aides sought to project a sense of calm. Used to the ever-present shadow of federal investigations, numbed West Wing staffers absorbed near-simultaneous announcements Tuesday of the Cohen plea deal and the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on financial charges.
Manafort faces trial on separate charges in September in the District of Columbia that include acting as a foreign agent.
That Cohen was in trouble was no surprise — federal prosecutors raided his offices months ago — but Trump and his allies were caught off guard when he also pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes, which, for the first time, took the swirling criminal probes directly to the president.
Both cases resulted, at least in part, from the work of Mueller, who as special counsel was given the brief of probing "any links and/or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday that his client has information "that would be of interest" to the special counsel.
"There are subjects that Michael Cohen could address that would be of interest to the special counsel," Davis said in a series of television interviews.
Trump, in turn, praised Manafort as "a brave man!" raising speculation the former campaign operative could become the recipient of a pardon. Trump told Fox that he had "great respect" for Manafort. He contended the prosecution was an overreach by the Justice Department and he revived his criticism that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should have never allowed himself to be considered for the role if he knew he would have to recuse himself in future Russia investigations.
While not responding to Trump by name, later Thursday, Sessions issued a statement saying he was "effectuating the president's agenda."
"I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in," Sessions said in a statement. "While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
'I think everybody would be poor'
Manafort, Trump says, had tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Cohen, he refused to "break."' Sanders said the matter of a pardon for Manafort had not been discussed.
Among Trump allies, the back-to-back blows were a harbinger of dark days to come for the president.
Democrats are eagerly anticipating gaining subpoena power over the White House — and many are openly discussing the possibility of impeaching Trump — should they retake control of the House in November's midterm elections.
"I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job," Trump said to Fox. He continued: "If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor.
"Because without this thinking," said Trump as he pointed to his head, "you would see, you would see numbers that you wouldn't believe in reverse."
And even Trump loyalists acknowledged the judicial proceedings were a blow to the Republican Party's chances of retaining the majority this year.
Allies of the president stressed an untested legal theory that a sitting president cannot be indicted — only impeached.
With files from CBC News