President Donald Trump is trying to distance himself from two former aides who are likely headed to federal prison, and wants the practice of reducing sentences if felons provide information about higher-ups “outlawed.”
In an interview with Fox News that aired Thursday morning, Trump said Michael Cohen worked for him “part time” and claimed to not know Paul Manafort “well.”
Cohen, his former attorney, pleaded guilty Tuesday to multiple crimes, including campaign finance violations stemming from payments he said he made to two women at Trump’s direction to influence the 2016 presidential election. His former campaign boss, Manafort, was convicted on eight counts and faces up to 80 years in federal prison.
Trump disputed the widely held view that Cohen was his “fixer,” meaning his go-to guy to clean up sticky situations.
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“I don’t know if he was a fixer. I don’t know where that term came from,” the president said, referring to Cohen as “not somebody who was with me that much” and “not a very good lawyer, frankly.”
“I would see him sometimes,” Trump said. “I always found him to be a nice guy.”
Trump was asked if he is considering a pardon for Manafort, whom he praised Wednesday on Twitter for not — as Cohen did — making a deal with prosecutors to get a lighter sentence by providing them with information.
“I have great respect for what he’s done, in terms of what he’s gone through,” Trump said. “What he did, some of the charges they threw against him, every consultant, every lobbyist in Washington probably does. … I didn’t know Manafort well. He wasn’t with the campaign very long.”
Trump never said whether he might pardon Manafort, but he did try to distance himself from his former campaign chairman’s criminal acts, saying, “I wasn’t charged.”
On Cohen, the president also continued to deny knowing about payments Cohen made to two women — one an adult film star and another a model — during the homestretch of the 2016 presidential election when those monetary transactions were made. During a plea hearing Tuesday, Cohen told a federal judge he made those payments at Trump’s direction with the intent of influencing the election.
“But you have to understand … what he did, and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance,” Trump said of Cohen. “That’s a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign. They came from me.”
But the Cohen documents filed by federal prosecutors clearly explain that the crime came in the amount of the payments, which exceeded limits on campaign contributions that can go directly to candidates.
“My first question when I heard about it was, ‘Did they come out of the campaign?’ Because that could be a little dicey. … It’s not even a campaign violation.”
In comments that will likely get the attention of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump said the practice of individuals “flipping” on their former associates to get lighter sentences “almost should be illegal.”
“It should be outlawed,” he said, adding that the practice is “not fair.”
“If you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you can go down to two years or three years, which is the deal [Cohen] made — in all fairness to him, most people are going to do that,” the president said, sitting just outside the Oval Office. “I’ve seen it many times. It’s called ‘flipping’ and it almost should be illegal.”
Trump accused Cohen and others who make such deals of providing federal prosecutors with “lies,” but said his former attorney “made a very good deal.”
And notably, during the interview, Trump repeatedly criticized his hand-picked attorney general, Jeff Sessions. At one point, an agitated Trump said Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department.”
Trump delivered one of his harshest rebukes yet of the attorney general, blasting him for recusing himself from Mueller’s probe due to contacts he had with a Russian diplomat while still a GOP senator from Alabama and an adviser to Trump’s campaign.
When he was told of Sessions’ decision, Trump described his own reaction this way: “What kind of man is this?”
The president also used the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly by an undocumented migrant, to blast Democrats for, as he said, not supporting the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and to make the case for his proposed southern border wall.
“We have bad laws,” he said of existing immigration laws. “They’ll get better, but we have to elect more Republicans.”
In an incredible moment, the president fired a warning shot across the bow of congressional Democrats who have called for impeachment proceedings against him should they win control of the House in November.
“I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job. I tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash,” he said. Trump predicted the entire country would suffer if he is impeached, saying, “I think everybody would be very poor.”
Pointing to his head, he told Fox interviewer Ainsley Earhardt that “without this thinking, you would see [economic] numbers you wouldn’t believe in reverse.”
Trump, always image-conscious, gave himself a perfect score when asked to grade his performance since taking office.
“I give myself an A-plus. I don’t think any president has ever done what I’ve done in this short [time],” he said. “Biggest tax cuts in history. Soon to be two Supreme Court justices. … You look at all the things we’ve done with regulations. The economy is the best it’s ever been in history.”