ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to look now at how much these new filings in the Michael Cohen case put President Trump in legal jeopardy - specifically looking at the payments of hush money to two women who say Trump had affairs with them. The president denies that those affairs took place. He tweeted today that those payments were, quote, "a simple private transaction" - not a campaign contribution as prosecutors describe them. Nick Akerman is a former federal prosecutor who was also part of the Watergate prosecution team. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
NICK AKERMAN: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: What do you make of that claim by President Trump that the payments Michael Cohen made to two women at his direction were not a campaign donation - a campaign contribution but rather a simple private transaction?
AKERMAN: Hardly a private transaction - these were all done just prior to the election for the simple purpose of keeping both women quiet and helping him get reelected by not having them come out during the course of the campaign. So I just don't see where he goes with this. But if you're looking at what the real revelation is out of all of this, it's not just the campaign violations. If you look at what the special counsel put in, they really have Donald Trump in the soup on this conspiracy that was brought against the 13 Russian intelligence operatives back in July 13 of this year. You have Cohen basically going in and lying during his first session with the special counsel's office. And as a result, he wound up afterwards having to plead guilty to making a false statement to the Senate about his involvement in Trump Tower - not ending in January of 2016 but later in June of 2016.
SHAPIRO: So if I understand you correctly, if you were approaching this case as a federal prosecutor, are you saying that the conversations with Russia seem more likely to constitute a criminal offense than the hush money payments and possible campaign finance violations?
AKERMAN: No, I think they both constitute a criminal offense. But I think the more serious one is the conspiracy between the campaign and the Russian government to get Donald Trump elected. And if you - sorry.
SHAPIRO: As you read the public documents now, do you see enough evidence to prove that a crime was committed?
AKERMAN: I see a certain indicia that they have this evidence already simply because if you look at the key date here in mid-September, when Michael Cohen started cooperating, at that point he not only admitted his lie about the Trump Tower in Moscow, but he also admitted all the other lies that he made in that same statement to the Senate. And if you read what they say here, they say that Cohen was cooperating on the broader efforts through public statements and testimony before Congress to minimize his role in what he knew about contacts between the Russian interests during the course of the campaign. One of those prime events was what Christopher Steele, the former head of MI6, the British intelligence agency, found - was a meeting that occurred in Prague between Cohen and Russian operatives after Paul Manafort, the campaign manager, resigned. Prior to September of 2018, Michael Cohen and his lawyer were denying that there ever was such a meeting. Also...
SHAPIRO: There are a lot of different names and dates here. But to zero in on what if any criminal offense might have been committed by Donald Trump, what is the meat of the case against him here?
AKERMAN: The meat of the case is he sent his private lawyer to Prague. He was involved in taking and working through the Russians, straight from the time of the Trump Tower meeting, the June 4 email to Don Jr., to using, in effect, the stolen documents and emails from the Democratic National Committee to get himself elected.
SHAPIRO: And his supporters will say collusion is not a federal offense. What is a federal offense?
AKERMAN: A federal offense is conspiracy. And in this case, the Russians were charged with conspiracy under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is a federal hacking statute, as well as a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. So here what you had was a scope of conspiracy charged against the Russians that included not only the theft of the emails but also the staging and release of the emails. And that's where Donald Trump was involved.
SHAPIRO: In just our last minute or so, there is a debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted for a crime. What's your understanding of the state of the law here?
AKERMAN: I think the state of the law just hasn't been decided. I see no reason why a sitting president cannot be indicted. I think the best precedent we have on this is the Paula Jones case, where basically the Supreme Court rejected the notion that the president is too busy to be involved in a civil case. That was the main argument that was made there - about the president being too busy. But the bottom line is this president has gone into federal court in Los Angeles, suing somebody who claims he doesn't know, and spends most of his time on a golf course. So the idea that he's too busy just doesn't cut it here.
SHAPIRO: Nick Akerman is a former federal prosecutor. Thank you for joining us today.
AKERMAN: Thank you for having me.
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