The persistent nagging skepticism that has surrounded President Trump’s legal travails arose again in recent days when reports claimed that Robert Mueller would soon publish his final report. If Mueller was almost done, he couldn’t have much more, and none of it would touch Trump directly.
Michael Cohen’s testimony destroys that presumption completely. Trump’s former fixer alleges not only systematic criminality by his former boss, but deep culpability in the Russia scandal itself. There is no longer any serious chance that Trump will avoid impeachment proceedings. Cohen’s testimony should be seen as the first hearing.
Cohen’s opening statement reviews many of Trump’s familiar degeneracies. He is casually racist and habitually criminal, gleefully refusing to pay his contractors and arranging petty scams like using his “charitable” foundation for self-enrichment. More seriously still, Cohen has evidence in the form of signed checks that Trump knowingly violated campaign finance law by reimbursing him for payments to Stormy Daniels during the campaign. Trump signed the reimbursement checks that violated campaign finance law as a sitting president. (And, by signing a Trump organization check, he also casually broke his promise not to involve himself in any business activities while in office.)
But the most damning details in Cohen’s testimony concern the Russia scandal. Cohen’s evidence that Trump knew about the July 2016 meeting with Russian operatives is highly circumstantial, yet persuasive. He notes that Trump knew about everything that happened in the campaign, and describes a meeting in which Donald Jr. appeared to inform his father:
I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened. Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk — which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: “The meeting is all set.” I remember Mr. Trump saying, “Ok good … let me know.”
Cohen is now the second member of Trump’s inner circle to publicly express complete certainty that Trump knew about the meeting. “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero,” said Steve Bannon last year. Neither of them have anywhere close to enough evidence to prove it, of course, and this fact may never be proven.
But Cohen does have clear and direct testimony of several other aspects of Trump’s involvement. He testifies that Trump knew about the attempts to develop a tower in Moscow, asked about the project repeatedly, and stood to gain “hundreds of millions of dollars” from the deal. So Trump was secretly beholden to Russia while he was running for president, and none of this was disclosed to the public during the campaign.
Cohen also explains that Trump directed him to lie to Congress about the project. (“In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, 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.”) That is suborning perjury, just as surely as a boss telling a subordinate, “I was never here,” or, “We never had this conversation,” is clearly an instruction to lie.
Most explosively, Cohen alleges that he witnessed a conversation between Trump and Roger Stone, his intermediary to Wikileaks:
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. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”
This is the final link in the chain between Trump and Russia. Robert Mueller’s indictments have outlined a conspiracy connecting Russian intelligence to the hackers who stole Democratic emails, the hackers to WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks to Stone. Cohen is now connecting Trump to Stone.
Trump’s inner circle has obviously been aware of this. Asked in December if Stone ever gave Trump a heads-up on what WikiLeaks had obtained, his lawyer equivocated:
In a recent profile, Jeffrey Toobin asked Stone about “persistent rumors that Mueller has a witness who says he heard Trump and Stone on a speakerphone discussing WikiLeaks.” Stone replied, “Prove it.”
If this can be proved, it would also likely expose Trump to direct perjury charges. In his written answers to Mueller, Trump reportedly denied having been informed in advance about emails obtained by Wikileaks. And this explains why Mueller settled for allowing Trump to answer written questions rather than demanding a live interview. He knew he could commit Trump to supplying false answers that would expose him to perjury charges.
Proving it remains the obstacle. The scale of Cohen’s accusations are so vast that it is not tenable for Trump’s defenders to simply brush them aside. Instead, they are attacking him as an untrustworthy liar — a “convicted felon who’s been lying,” in the words of Donald Trump Jr.
This counterattack proves much less than Trump seems to think it does. Busting up a criminal organization usually requires the cooperation of some of its members, who, by definition, are also criminals. Federal prosecutors have publicly vouched for their belief that Cohen has turned the page on his criminal history and is coming clean. Cohen’s testimony is “credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the SCO’s ongoing investigation,” reports his sentencing memorandum. “He has told the truth,” said Jeannie Rhee, one of Mueller’s prosecutors. Cohen has backed up some of his allegations against Trump with physical evidence, such as signed checks.
Of course, the charges to which Cohen has pled guilty are serious ones. He lied to protect Donald Trump. This is the same crime President Trump and his son have also apparently committed, a fact that rather complicates their attempt to present Cohen’s lies as fatally disqualifying to his credibility.
In any case, the depth and breadth of credible allegations against the president are now on a scale at which it will not do to let them go without further investigation. Regardless of whatever additional evidence Mueller finds, Congress will surely start impeachment hearings to get to the bottom of it.