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Congressman Adam Schiff Reacts To Manafort Verdict And Cohen's Guilty Plea

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier we spoke to Congressman Adam Schiff. He's a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which has investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. I began by asking him what he made of today's news.

ADAM SCHIFF: We're looking at it from the 30,000-foot level. The president's campaign manager is now a convicted felon; his deputy campaign manager also a convicted felon; former national security adviser - convicted felon; foreign policy adviser - convicted felon. So you have to look at the Mueller investigation in its totality and say it's been remarkably successful in a short period of time in getting major convictions of major players within Trump's inner circle.

CORNISH: But even with this Manafort trial, this jury wasn't able to reach a unanimous conclusion on more than half the counts.

SCHIFF: That isn't uncommon - you know, speaking as a former white-collar prosecutor - to have a jury that's able to reach a verdict on some counts but not others. The government will now have to decide whether to retry those counts. Or it may conclude, we'll go forward with the other prosecution in the other court. If he's convicted on those other charges, it may not be necessary to retry these 10 counts. He may be facing essentially exposure for the rest of his life behind bars. So they may conclude it's simply not worth it. The one thing it does do, though, is I think it dramatically increases the likelihood that Manafort may decide he really needs to cooperate with the government. He may not have wanted to, but now that he's facing serious time, even with the eight counts alone, that may change his mind.

CORNISH: I want to turn to the other story we're following - President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, as we mentioned, pleading guilty to campaign finance violations. In the New York City courtroom today, he reportedly said that he made payments at the direction of, quote, "a candidate for federal office for the principal purpose of influencing the election." He appears to be implicating the president in relation to the Stormy Daniels payment. What do you make of that?

SCHIFF: To me, this is the more serious development of the day for the president. And that is the guy that knows the - where the bodies are buried just pled guilty to multiple felonies and essentially implicated the president in campaign finance - knowing campaign finance violations. This is the first guilty plea that directly brings potential illegality to the president's feet. And it also makes it that much more likely that Cohen's going to cooperate with authorities, may already be cooperating. And this may be the far more consequential development of the day.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about that. President Trump and his defenders have been long arguing that the Mueller investigation into Russian interference has exceeded its mandate. And looking here, you know, neither Cohen nor Manafort were facing charges related to Russian election interference. So does the president have a point? Do his defenders have a point?

SCHIFF: No. This is often the case when you're investigating a certain range of issues. Other illegalities come up, and evidence comes to light. Let's not forget that the - Michael Flynn, the president's national security adviser, was convicted for lying to investigators about his contacts with Russia. George Papadopoulos - similarly convicted for lying about his contacts with Russians. So there have been convictions that are directly related to the Russia investigation. And what is most consequential here - and by the way, Manafort is charged with money laundering while he was the campaign manager for the president - what may - most consequential is if they end up cooperating and have useful information about the issues of conspiracy or collusion or issues of obstruction of justice. So these cooperating witnesses could be very important.

CORNISH: What does it signal to you - both these cases - about the Mueller investigation itself?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, that it's working I think at really breakneck speed. To have secured so many convictions of such high-level people in such a short period of time is a remarkable record for any special prosecutor. So it may seem like a long investigation to the president or even to the country, but in terms of white-collar cases, complex white-collar cases, they have moved with remarkable speed. And it does make you wonder what is yet to come. But the fact that the president would surround himself with so many people who were engaged in felony criminal conduct even before it was brought to light also tells you something about the president and who he surrounds himself with and who he likes to do business with.

CORNISH: We heard reportedly one U.S. senator, Mark Warner - he's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee - essentially warning President Trump against pardoning Paul Manafort, saying any attempt by the president to pardon Mr. Manafort or interfere in the investigation into his campaign would be a gross abuse of power and require immediate action by Congress. Are you worried about that, and is that a worry from others in Congress?

SCHIFF: I'm deeply concerned about it because abuse of the pardon power could be every much - every bit as much of a disruption of the Mueller investigation as firing Mueller. If he removes the incentives of people to cooperate with government in order to protect himself, that is an obstruction of justice. And I'm certainly not of the school that Giuliani is that thinks the president can do no wrong, violate no law, that he is essentially above the law. If he takes an act that he would otherwise have the power to do, like issue a pardon or fire the FBI director but does it for an illicit purpose - to obstruct the investigation - that's a violation of the law. And the president can be held accountable just like any other American.

CORNISH: Adam Schiff is the ranking member on the House intelligence committee. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SCHIFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.