While President Trump continues to assert his innocence despite investigations moving closer to him, and to berate his accusers, both foes and allies nonetheless are grappling with a looming question: If what prosecutors say is true, what then?
Allegations in court filings last week, if borne out, would constitute an “impeachable offense,” said the incoming head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, on CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday.
But the New York Democrat quickly sounded a cautionary note: That doesn’t mean his newly empowered party would actually seek to impeach the president.
Nadler joined other lawmakers on Sunday’s television interview programs in citing the need for greater clarity to emerge from the wide-ranging Justice Department investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and whether Trump’s team coordinated with the Russians. A separate federal case in New York also focuses on Trump associates.
Despite the bipartisan calls for the process to play itself out, however, members of both parties suggested that the latest court documents marked a distinct milestone in the president’s deepening legal woes.
“Let’s be clear: We have reached a new level in the investigation,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on ABC’s “This Week.”
In a filing in New York, federal prosecutors asserted that shortly before the 2016 election, Trump directed Michael Cohen, then his personal lawyer and “fixer,” to arrange hush-money payments to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in an attempt to conceal extramarital affairs.
Both women said they had sexual liaisons with Trump more than a decade ago, and prosecutors say the payments were intended to short-circuit any harm to Trump’s presidential bid.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigators wrote in their filings of previously undisclosed contacts between Russians and Cohen, including one at Trump’s direction. That marked the latest challenge to Trump’s long-standing denials of any “collusion.”
Allies continued to defend the president, although at least one prominent Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, warned that Trump could imperil himself even further if he moves to pardon his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Speaking on ABC, Rubio said he would “advise strongly” against such a pardon.
“I believe it would be a terrible mistake,” he said. “Pardons should be used judicially. They’re used for cases with extraordinary circumstances. I haven’t heard that the White House is thinking about doing it. I know he hasn’t ruled it out.”
Manafort was convicted on eight charges of tax evasion and bank fraud related to his previous work in Ukraine. After pleading guilty to two charges of conspiracy and agreeing to cooperate, he repeatedly lied to Mueller’s investigators after agreeing to cooperate, the special counsel’s team said. He faces a heavy sentence for the crimes.
Nadler said on CNN that details in last week’s court filings suggested that Trump was “at the center of a massive fraud” perpetrated against American voters.
“They would be impeachable offenses,” Nadler said. But he said of the alleged illegal hush-money payments, “Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Senate Democrats, pointed out on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that an impeachment is very different from a criminal prosecution.
If such proceedings were initiated against Trump, he said, “at least a third of the country would think it was just political revenge.”
King described impeachment as a “last resort” but said the filing in the Cohen case implicated the president in committing a felony.
“The key phrase for me is ‘directed by’ President Trump,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a frequent ally of the president, played down the hush-money payments, suggesting that campaign finance violations were largely a technicality.
“If we’re going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance, we’re going to have a banana republic,” he said on “Meet the Press.”
In January, control of the House — along with its key committee chairmanships and subpoena powers — will come into Democrats’ hands in the wake of their party’s midterm election gains. Democrats have accused their Republican counterparts of serving as a bulwark for Trump, ensuring a lack of congressional oversight and executive accountability.
“The new Congress will not try to shield the president,” Nadler said.
Another incoming committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), called the extent of Trump’s potential legal exposure “breathtaking.”
Though Justice Department guidelines rule out the indictment of a sitting president, Schiff, a former prosecutor, said there was “a very real prospect” that Trump could be indicted as soon as he leaves office.
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Schiff said Trump may be the first president “in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”
He added, however, “I think we need to see the full picture” to determine whether impeachment proceedings would be warranted, let alone other measures.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, claiming in a tweet Saturday that the latest court filings in fact vindicated him. That prompted head-scratching among legal experts, including the lawyer married to White House aide Kellyanne Conway, George Conway, who said the prosecutors’ assertions posed a significant new legal threat.
On Sunday, Trump was back to raging on Twitter at a familiar target, former FBI Director James B. Comey, whose firing by Trump in May 2017 led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel. Without providing evidence, the president accused the ex-director of lying to Congress during testimony last week.