While 8000 miles away in Vietnam the president of the United States practices nuclear diplomacy, Americans at home watched former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen stand up on his hind legs to beg for a reduced jail sentence.
Cohen, testifying on February 27 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform (he testified behind closed doors on Tuesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he will go back behind closed doors Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee), told Americans who think they already know what they think exactly what they wanted to hear: Trump is a vulgar conman, a racist, and a cheat. None of that is impeachable or criminal. Also, water is wet.
The media is burying the lede: Michael Cohen did not provide any evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, nor did he provide any evidence of collusion, active coordination or conspiracy with Wikileaks. Cohen’s accusation of a Trump crime while in office is at best an evidence-free rendering of an unclear violation of a campaign finance law usually settled with a fine. Any action going forward using Cohen’s testimony requires one to simply believe the words of Michael Cohen. That’s a big ask.
Building a criminal case, or impeachment, around the uncorroborated testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon violating attorney-client privilege to beg for a shorter sentence seems weak. Absent corroborating evidence it is hard to see Cohen’s testimony leading to impeachment or criminal charges. It all sounds very dramatic and will be played as such by the media, but in the end is another faux smoking gun. There’s just not much meat on these bones.
On Russian collusion, Cohen stated “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.” Cohen went on to claim he saw Don, Jr. tell his father some meeting had been set. “I concluded that Don, Jr. was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary with the Russian representative when he walked behind his dad’s desk that day.” Cohen presented no evidence the meeting Don, Jr. referred to was with the Russians, or maybe was with the guy redoing Trump’s kitchen. A defense lawyer would be laughing as she labeled Cohen’s “conclusion” speculation and uncorroborated supposition.
The best the Democratic questioners drag out of Cohen over the course of over seven hours was “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone,” when asked directly if Trump worked with Russia. Cohen did later deny the existence of the pee tape and anything else that could be used as blackmail. Not much to work with. Russiagate comes down to some Trump people noodling around in Moscow about a hotel that was never built, talking about meetings with Putin that never took place? Your big takeaway is Trump was asking about that inside his own organization until June instead of giving up following the progress earlier? That’s what you want to take to the American people as a case for impeachment, with Michael Cohen in an orange jumpsuit on a prison pass as your key witness?
On business in Russia, Cohen claims Trump was “lying to the American people” during his campaign about negotiations to build a hotel in Moscow. Leaving aside there is nothing illegal about negotiating to build a hotel, and that neither Cohen nor anyone else has shown any evidence of all the Putin connections the media keeps insisting must exist. A review of Trump’s statements show what Cohen claims are “lies to the American people” about whether or not Trump had “business” in Russia would be seen by a defense lawyer as careful parsing of words; Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley concludes after his own parsing at worst Trump mislead by omission and even that requires one to dig into tweets where Trump used the present tense and not the past tense to describe things.
On Stormy Daniels, Cohen showed a check for $35,000 from Trump to him, which was supposedly part of the total $130k paid to her to keep quiet about Trump and Stormy’s affair. The check does not show what the payment was for. The check does not have Stormy’s name on it. Cohen said it was part of the reimbursement for “illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.” A defense lawyer would chuckle at the idea that was “evidence.” It is a receipt for a crime only because Cohen now says it is. Under direct questioning, Cohen claimed there was no corroborating evidence beyond the 11 checks. He said he sent invoices to Trump for “legal retainer fees,” so don’t bother with the invoices as evidence because Cohen now says he lied on them claiming it was a retainer fee. Those 11 checks will total over $400k, because supposedly Trump rolled Cohen’s fee and bonus into the amount, so we just have to take his word for it that some of that money was for Stormy. Cohen said some of the checks were signed by Don, Jr. and the Trump Organization’s CFO. Apparently the checks are going to be used to implicate personally a person who did not sign the checks.
Paying money as part of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is not illegal. If Trump had been just a businessperson who had an affair, there would be nothing to discuss. People legally pay other people to be quiet all the time. Legal services such as Cohen otherwise provided are a standing campaign cost (lawyers regularly obtaining discreet resolutions of issues that threaten the interests of their clients.) The alleged illegality comes from the supposition by Cohen that he can speak to Trump’s intent, that the NDA was not, say, to spare Trump’s marriage from new embarrassment, but in the text of the law “for the principal purpose of influencing an election” amid everyone already knowing Trump was a serial philanderer. Campaign finance laws require proof a person was willfully violating the law. Cohen’s testimony does not prove Trump knew the payments he was making were illegal. Prosecutors would have to prove that willingness somehow if they wanted to charge the president.
Even then, that would make Trump at worst a conspirator to a contested interpretation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. At worst it is a de minimis legal violation the serious business of impeachment isn’t concerned with. It is hard to imagine impeachment hearings bogging down looking into intricacies of federal election law that otherwise confound second year law students.
On Trump ordering Cohen to lie to Congress, Cohen said “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations… he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.” Cohen later referred to some sort of Trump “code” that was used to order him to lie.
On Wikileaks, Cohen stated “In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Someone will need NSA intercepts to prove this true because Stone and Wikileaks deny it, and Cohen says there were no others present to corroborate.
The question left aside is so what. In the larger picture, it represents limited passive knowledge on Trump’s part the emails will leak, as Cohen said Stone had no details on the upcoming content. It does not say the Russians did anything, it does not say Trump worked with Wikileaks. Stone, of course, is habitually full of crap. He had previously lied about having dinner with Assange. Even if the call was made, it remains a real likelihood Stone was overselling his access to Wikileaks. Julian Assange is a hard guy to get on the phone and would have no incentive to tip off a partisan hack like Stone and risk soiling his claims to non-partisanship. Even the New York Times has questioned how trustworthy Stone is.
Cohen said the phone call took place July 18 or 19. Trump could have read on Twitter July 7 that Wikileaks had pending releases. Earlier, the Guardian on June 12, 2016, where Assange announced he’d be releasing more Clinton emails. The newspaper stated the emails will “provide further ammunition for Donald Trump, her Republican presidential rival, who has used the issue to attack her.” The Stone call, if it took place, was based on public knowledge. Pretty much anyone with a pulse in Washington anticipated more Wikileaks releases that summer of 2016. Cohen’s bombshell had been available online for almost three years.
The emerging media bleat Trump lied in writing to Mueller about contact with Stone and thus, if Cohen is believed, committed perjury, is based solely on unconfirmed anonymous “sources.” No one outside the White House and Mueller’s office knows what Trump wrote in answer to the special prosecutor’s written interrogatories.
So this is it? A saga that began in the summer of 2016, one that commanded a Special Prosecutor to investigate if the Russian government worked with the current president of the United States to help him get elected, that claimed that president was a Russian intelligence asset under the control of Putin, is going to hinge on the minutiae of campaign finance law? That is going to be lawyered into something leading to impeachment?
As for the hearing itself, Democrats spent the day putting inflammatory words into Cohen’s mouth that he gratefully voiced to make good quotes. They focused on questions of Trump’s finances which will no doubt provide the hook for exposing Trump’s taxes. Republicans spent the time calling Cohen dishonest. Neither side distinguished themselves but gratefully no one on the dais made any specific Godfather movie references. The new POC Democrats in the House called most everyone else racists and made little virtuous speechlets.
Cohen, for his part, referred to himself more than once as the son of a Holocaust survivor and sought victimhood throughout the hearing because he will miss his family while in jail. Cohen hurt his own credibility on multiple occasions claiming not to understand simple questions just as time ran out, allowing him to dodge responding. Chairman Cummings abetted this via his on-and-off again aggressive enforcement of time limits. Cohen refused to say he’d dedicate the millions he will most certainly make off book deals and commentary roles to charity, further reducing his credibility. He dangled he had hundreds of tapes of something, but produced none. Heaven help us when #BelieveCohen starts trending.
It was going to be Comey’s testimony that took Trump down, then Papadopoulos was going to flip, or maybe Manafort or Flynn. There were tapes of something, a Russian spy with red hair who would roll over. Books by Comey and Clapper blowing the roof off things, the walls closing in again and again and again. And soon it will be Mueller time! Or may Southern District of New York time, because the media seems to be prepping us Mueller may not have much to say.
It is all exhausting. We’ll soon enough see if voters feel like a dog with a mean owner always holding out a Scooby treat he’ll never let go of. Sooner or later that dog might say, I’m either gonna bite that SOB, or just get bored and stop giving him the satisfaction of salivating around him.