Lawmakers left reeling as Capitol Hill digests Manafort, Cohen cases

Events happened just moments apart

By LAUREN FOX AND JEREMY HERB, CNN
Anthony Umrani/CNN

(CNN) - Two courtroom decisions within minutes of each other, each with eight convictions, against President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and campaign chairman engulfed Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where Republicans downplayed the connection of both cases to the White House while Democrats seized on the President's potential role and raised the prospect that he could have broken the law, too.

The guilty plea from Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen and the guilty verdicts against Paul Manafort once again scrambled the narrative for the President and special counsel Robert Mueller, prompting dueling reactions from senators peppered with questions about the latest developments.

"If Manafort and Cohen did things that (they) shouldn't have done, which it sounds like they did, I think they ought to be held responsible for it but I don't see any of this having anything to do with the President and Russia," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. "My expectation is that Mr. Mueller knows the lay of the land. The fact that he interviewed Don McGahn for 30 hours with the President's approval strikes me as having nothing to hide when it comes to the Russia investigation. So I hope this ends up concluding sooner rather than later and doesn't continue to be an issue in another election."

Democrats argued the news had ramifications for the special counsel's ongoing Russia investigation.

"If, as Michael Cohen testified in his guilty plea, his felonies were committed at the direction of ‪@realDonaldTrump, then the POTUS would be part of a federal crime - the only thing limiting DOJ from prosecuting being an OLC ruling saying a sitting president cannot be indicted," Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter.

If Democrats win control of the House in November, Nadler is expected to take the gavel of the Judiciary Committee, the panel that would likely lead impeachment proceedings. Nadler's comments Tuesday are the closest he's come to raising the prospect of impeachment, as to date he has tamped down the impeachment calls from some of his Democratic colleagues.

In less than an hour Tuesday, Manafort was found guilty on eight counts of financial crimes -- with a mistrial declared for the other 10 -- and then Cohen entered a plea deal and said that "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office" he had kept information that would have been harmful to the candidate and the campaign from becoming public.

The shocking turn of events left members on Capitol Hill divided, with Republicans trying to distance the President from any legal fallout his allies were facing and Democrats arguing the latest news was deeply troubling -- and yet another reason why ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign were essential.

Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the conviction of Manafort on multiple charges showed "again that the President's campaign was populated by individuals with a history of unscrupulous and dishonest business dealings and concerning ties to overseas interests."

On Cohen, Schiff argued that "the factual basis of the plea, potentially implicating the President in illegal campaign finance violations, adds to the President's legal jeopardy."

For Democrats, the latest news left more questions. Would, for example, Trump move to pardon Manafort, or how would the latest twist influence the Senate's own investigation?

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said he hoped Trump would not pardon Manafort, adding that "would have Watergate written all over it."

Republicans said they wanted to learn more, and some of the President's defenders noted that the charges against Manafort and Cohen had nothing to do with Russian collusion.

"Thus far, there have yet to be any charges or convictions for colluding with the Russian government by any member of the Trump campaign in the 2016 election," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in a statement. "I hope Mr. Mueller can conclude his investigation sooner rather than later for the benefit of the nation."

Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee who's an outspoken critic of Trump at times, suggested the best course of action would be to "let the legal process play out."

Asked how serious it was for Trump, Corker said that "it's really hard to say. ... Let's let the legal process play out. I'll let you guys decide how serious it is."

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, learned of the Manafort news as she walked off the Senate floor.

"It seems to me the prosecution built a pretty strong case so I'm not really surprised at those convictions," Collins said. She declined to comment further until she learned more.

The anticipation on Capitol Hill had been building In the minutes before Cohen entered his plea. Sens. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who's the ranking member of the committee, offered a rare joint statement before reporters Tuesday afternoon saying they had "re-engaged" with Cohen.

Burr said the committee hoped that Cohen's guilty plea would not prevent him from potentially speaking to the committee again, following reports earlier this month that he claimed Trump had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between campaign officials and Russian lawyers at Trump Tower.

Democrats argued that Congress should race to protect Mueller from being fired by the President.

"With the Cohen and Manafort news today, it's more important than ever that Congress act immediately to protect the Mueller investigation," Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine tweeted.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in a statement that the White House was looking "increasingly like a criminal enterprise."

"Paul Manafort today faces, in effect, a life sentence. Michael Cohen should also face serious punishment for his crimes. Both should now cooperate -- truthfully and fully," Blumenthal said.

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