AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK. Now let's talk about an admission that came during Michael Cohen's appearance in federal court today. He's President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer. And he pleaded guilty today to eight counts. Let's break them down - five counts of tax evasion, one count of falsifying submissions to a bank and two counts involving unlawful campaign contributions. And those last two counts prompted the key admission. Cohen said in court today that, at the direction of then-candidate Donald Trump, he paid off two women to keep them quiet. Stephen Vladeck is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who has been following all of this from the very beginning. Welcome.
STEPHEN VLADECK: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So Michael Cohen did not name the two women. But what he described is in line with the stories of former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels. And Cohen told the judge that the payments were, quote, "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." So let me ask you this - what kind of legal exposure could President Trump be facing at this point, given those admissions?
VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, I think the reality is you could be facing pretty significant exposure, as long as you accept that a sitting president can be indicted. Of course, the president has continued to argue that he can't. But, you know, Michael Cohen didn't just admit that he made those payments today. He said that he did it at the behest of the candidate - that is to say then-candidate, now-President Trump.
So, you know, in a normal world, this would be pretty serious charges - that the then-candidate, now-president was directly involved in conspiring to violate federal campaign finance laws. You know, I think the normal reaction we would expect under our constitutional system would be that this would really provoke Congress and the House of Representatives to start looking seriously at the president. I think we know enough to know that that's not likely to happen, certainly not with this Congress.
CHANG: Are you suggesting that impeachment proceedings could be triggered by something like this?
VLADECK: Well, at the very least, I think this is a matter that Congress in the normal course would be expected to want to investigate - that if you accept in our constitutional system that the primary responsibility for holding the president accountable lies with the House of Representatives. You know, I wouldn't necessarily prejudge the question of whether a president should be impeached for this conduct.
But certainly, if I were Congress, I'd want to find out. I'd want to, you know, conduct a further investigation. And let's keep in mind, I mean, the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal stories have nothing at all to do with the ambit of special counsel Mueller's investigation, which is about Russian interference in the election, part of why special counsel Mueller presumably referred these cases to federal prosecutors in New York. So...
VLADECK: Sorry. Go ahead.
CHANG: ...Let me just push back because the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in a statement after all of this - a statement that reads in part, there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen. It sounds like you absolutely disagree with Giuliani.
VLADECK: Yeah. I mean, with all due respect to Mr. Giuliani, I think he's flat-out wrong. I mean, I think there's no specific allegation that the president broke a specific law. But when Michael Cohen says on the record, under oath, in a context in which a lie would jeopardize the plea agreement, that he made these illegal campaign contributions at the specific direction and behest of the candidate, I think we all know who the candidate is in the scenario. And so, you know, I think it doesn't take a law degree in this context to see that the president would, were he anybody else, be in significant legal jeopardy.
VLADECK: I think the complication, of course, is that, usually, it's Congress that runs with that kind of charge, not a, you know, federal prosecutor in New York.
CHANG: Let me just ask you very quickly in the 30 seconds we have left - this plea agreement did not include a cooperation agreement. What do you make of that? Was it unexpected that Michael Cohen wouldn't be cooperating with federal authorities at this point?
VLADECK: Well, I think we should not assume that the absence of a cooperation agreement in today's plea means that Cohen is not cooperating or won't cooperate going forward. All it means is that the government was willing to allow him to plea at this stage...
VLADECK: ...Without agreeing to cooperate.
CHANG: All right. Stephen Vladeck is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Thank you.
VLADECK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.