A day after President Donald Trump's former lawyer implicated his estranged boss in federal court, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said for the first time that it appeared likely that the president had broken the law.
Vermont's senior senator made the assertion in a brief interview with Seven Days Wednesday afternoon, immediately after addressing the president's mounting legal problems on the floor of the U.S. Senate. "The clouds of criminal conduct surrounding those close to the president are darkening," he said in those remarks.
Leahy was referring to two major developments that came a day earlier: former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's conviction on eight counts of tax and bank fraud, and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's guilty pleas on eight counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations. During Cohen's appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, he said he'd made illegal payments to two women "in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office," referring to Trump.
Alluding to that allegation, which Trump has denied, Leahy said in his floor remarks, "The president of the United States was effectively identified by his longtime lawyer and confidant as an unindicted co-conspirator in their efforts to commit criminal campaign finance violations."
Asked by Seven Days whether that meant Trump had broken the law, Leahy said in the interview, "It appears he has." The senator added, "We'll let that determination be made by Mr. Mueller," referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "If it happened the way [Cohen said it] did, of course that's breaking the law," Leahy continued. "To use money illegally in a campaign — of course that breaks the law."
Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to say whether Trump should be impeached.
"I think that I'd let the Mueller investigation and the rest of this play out," he said, noting that impeachment proceedings must begin in the U.S. House — and that its Republican majority was unlikely to take action. "The most important thing we can do is let the special counsel finish the investigation."
In his floor remarks, Leahy urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up bipartisan legislation that would protect Mueller's office, and he called on the Judiciary Committee to investigate potential wrongdoing by the president and his associates.
"The Russia investigation is the most pressing national security investigation of our time," Leahy said. "History will judge us harshly if we collectively shrug our shoulders and disregard our constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch in this moment."
Neither of Leahy's colleagues in Vermont's congressional delegation could be reached on Wednesday. A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined an interview request, and a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said he was on vacation.
In a written statement, Sanders called Tuesday's convictions and pleas "a serious development."
"The American people deserve to know the truth about the 2016 election," Sanders continued. "Congress must make certain that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is allowed to go forward unimpeded. Any attempt by the president to interfere or pardon Cohen or Manafort would be a very serious offense."
In his own written statement, Welch called the developments "important victories for the rule of law in America." Cohen's admission, he said, "directly implicates President Trump."
"The most important thing that Congress and the American people can do at this time is ensure that neither the president nor any member of his administration acts to derail this investigation," Welch continued. "Doing so, in my view, would be an impeachable offense."
Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.