This episode highlights what appears to be an emerging strategy on the part of Trump’s allies, as they seek to fend off the pressure of multiple intensifying investigations: Paint Trump as the victim. As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation intensifies, it seems that Trump’s allies are increasingly focused on spinning the multi-faceted probe as illegitimate.
Tuesday’s escalation of events was remarkable, and provided a window into not just Team Trump’s emerging strategy but also how investigators will react to it.
The whole thing started when Cohen leaked to the New York Times and other outlets his statement to the committee — before his interview even got underway. Cohen’s statement charged that the entire investigation was a politicized persecution of the president and even his supporters. “There are some in this country who do not care about the facts, but simply want to politicize this issue, choosing to presume guilt — rather than presuming innocence — so as to discredit our lawfully elected president in the public eye and to shame his supporters in the public square,” Cohen’s statement read.
Cohen then added an even more loaded recrimination: “This is un-American.”
It’s not hard to see why Cohen wanted the media to report on his statement’s contents before he spoke with investigators. Cohen was trying to get ahead of the story before the public might learn what the committee already knows and what information it is seeking from Cohen and other Trump allies.
But if that was Cohen’s intention, his strategy seems to have backfired profoundly. The committee’s chairs — Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Mark Warner — promptly released a statement denouncing his actions. They pledged that his appearance would be rescheduled soon — this time, in the glare of a public session.
In that statement, Burr and Warner said they were “disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to preempt today’s interview” by releasing the statement “in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment.” It was that disclosure, the statement continued, that resulted in the decision to not proceed with the interview. The clear message was that the committee is not going to give Cohen the benefit of the doubt if he refuses to play by the rules.
At the heart of Cohen’s self-serving narrative was his assertion that the Russia probe is rooted in rumor, innuendo, and “misinformation and unnamed and unverifiable sources.” Cohen pointed specifically to the unverified Steele dossier, prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele, which details Cohen’s participation in Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Cohen maintained in his statement to the Senate investigators that the dossier is “riddled with total falsehoods and intentionally salacious accusations.”
But in addition to disputing the contents of the dossier in his own defense, Cohen was making a broader claim about the Russia investigation as a whole — one that is unmistakably drawn from Trump’s own playbook of depicting himself as a blameless target of both the “deep state” and the “fake news” media. To further underscore his innocence, Cohen even “compared himself to a 12-year-old Missouri boy who he said had been attacked for wearing a Make America Great Again hat,” according to the Times.
Despite Cohen’s efforts, though, it seems evident that Senate investigators have no patience for his insinuations that their entire probe is without basis or merit, or for his transparent effort to play the victim card. The next time we see Michael Cohen, it’s likely to be in front of the committee, under oath, with the television cameras on, under questioning by lawmakers who already have been irked by his conduct.
It’s quite possible, then, that Cohen’s effort will have the opposite effect from what he intended. He wanted to exert influence over public perceptions of the probe by painting Trump as the victim. He may have instead opened himself up to even more intense and more public scrutiny. These tactics could backfire on Trump, by provoking investigators to be even more aggressive in questioning Trump’s associates — with the public looking on.