MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're still digesting the news that emerged late yesterday from the Department of Justice and special counsel Robert Mueller, so that's where we're going to begin today's program. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said President Trump, named as Individual One, directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to commit a felony - to violate campaign finance law by paying off women who said they had intimate relationships with Mr. Trump in years past.
We also learned yesterday that the Justice Department believes there were more contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents than previously known. Prosecutors say Russia reached out to the Trump Organization as early as 2015. I'm joined now by Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor who was kind enough to come into the studio to help us understand yesterday's court filings and what they might tell us about the direction special counsel Mueller is heading in.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
SHAN WU: Oh, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So let me start with the sentencing document filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York. Should we understand from it that the Justice Department considers the president an unindicted co-conspirator?
WU: I think so. Although he is not charged, I do think he is accused because Michael Cohen specifically says that the campaign finance violation was done at his direction. So I certainly do, I would consider him unindicted co-conspirator.
MARTIN: Now, the prosecutors in New York said Cohen did not fully cooperate with them, and they recommended that the judge hand down a four-year prison sentence, which some people consider substantial. But if Mr. Cohen is, according to the prosecutors, a liar, why should we trust what he told prosecutors about the president directing him to commit a crime?
WU: That's always the money question with cooperators, that - there's an aspect of them that they have, of course, violated the law, put their own interests ahead of other people. And now we are asked to believe that they are telling the truth. So here, the way that you can tell if a cooperator's telling the truth is really just through the corroboration. So they obviously have interviewed lots and lots of people, lots of documents. And that's how they test his credibility.
Now, a downside for Michael Cohen - he tried a very unorthodox method of cooperation and sort of called, like, a Zen method, which is the art of cooperating without cooperating. And he didn't sign a cooperating agreement. And, in that sense, he had some advantages, some disadvantages. Advantage - he controlled what he really wanted to disclose. They don't know what he doesn't know. This advantage - you're seeing it now. They're hammering him for not having done the traditional cooperation agreement.
MARTIN: And special counsel Mueller's office also filed a document about Michael Cohen. In it, we learn that Cohen told prosecutors a Russian reached out to him in 2015 and offered political synergy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And the special counsel didn't make any recommendations about prison time for Cohen. So what should we draw from that?
WU: I draw from that - that, for the special counsel, who has taken a very aggressive approach towards this investigation, very much treating it like a mob investigation, looking to flip people as soon as possible. Their initial offers are already quite generous, and then you add in the cooperation. So I think what you take from this is their interest in him is much more focused very specifically on the flipping, giving information about Trump.
The Southern District of New York, by comparison, is looking at a long history of wrongdoing by Michael Cohen. So they're like, hey, we appreciate the fact you're helping out here, but that's not enough to make up for everything else.
MARTIN: And Mueller also filed a separate document which is, I would say, a harsh assessment of Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Mueller said Manafort lied about communications with the Russians and also lied about communication with President Trump's lawyers when he, Manafort, was supposedly cooperating with Mueller's team.
But a lot of this document is redacted. I'm going to ask you what you make of it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do think it's important to note that you represented Paul Manafort's former partner, Rick Gates, for a time. But what do you make of that document?
WU: Yeah. And looking at it purely from the public angle - nothing confidential or privileged, of course - looking at that from the public angle, what we see here is that Manafort as a cooperator is really at the mercy of the prosecutors. Those documents say in cooperation it's at the sole discretion of the prosecutor whether you're cooperating or not. He apparently was trying to play a little bit of both sides, if we believe the allegations, still angling for the pardon.
The biggest danger, really, that Manafort presents is to the president himself because they had this very unusual joint defense agreement. And if it turns out that the president's written answers were conformed to Paul Manafort's falsehoods, it's like catching people cheating on an exam. You look at which of the wrong answers they both agreed to, and that could place a lot of jeopardy on the president.
MARTIN: So the president says this totally clears him, and you're saying that's not true.
WU: It - frankly, it's very hard to understand how he thinks this totally clears him.
MARTIN: That's former federal prosecutor Shan Wu. Now he's an attorney in private practice.
Thank you so much.
WU: Oh, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.