WASHINGTON — While President Trump continues to assert his innocence despite investigations moving closer to him, and to berate his accusers, both opponents and allies 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,” the incoming head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
But Nadler quickly sounded a cautionary note: That doesn’t mean his newly empowered party would seek to impeach the president.
Nadler joined other lawmakers on Sunday’s television interview programs in citing the need for more clarity to emerge from the wide-ranging Justice Department investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, 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 out, however, members of both parties suggested that the latest court documents marked a distinct milestone in the president’s deepening legal problems.
“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 pornography 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 candidacy.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigators wrote in their filings of previously undisclosed contacts between Russians and Cohen, including one at Trump’s direction. That was the latest challenge to Trump’s long-standing denials of any “collusion.”
Allies continued to defend the president, although Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., warned that Trump could imperil himself even further if he pardons his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Rubio said on ABC that 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.
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 allegedly 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 — and with it committee chairmanships and subpoena powers — will come into Democrats’ hands after their party’s gains in the midterm elections. Democrats have accused their Republican counterparts of acting 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-Calif., called the extent of Trump’s potential legal exposure “breathtaking.”
While 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.”
However, he said, “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 Twitter post Saturday that the latest court filings in fact vindicated him. That puzzled 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.