Opinion writer

The Post reports on the bombshell news that President Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen claims his boss had direct knowledge of the infamous June 9, 2016, meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and a Kremlin-linked lawyer:

Trump said explicitly last July that he didn’t know about the meeting before it happened. But, then, that’s what his campaign said about an alleged payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal when that news broke in October 2016. A conversation between Trump and his longtime attorney and problem-solver Michael Cohen discussing that payment the prior month emerged this week.

On Thursday night, both NBC and CNN reported that Cohen, per a source close to him, was prepared to tell investigators that he was present when Trump Jr. told his father about the possibility of meeting with the Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. The meeting stemmed from an email sent by a music publicist to Trump Jr. in which the Trump campaign was promised “some official documents and information” that constituted “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

If true, Cohen’s account would put Trump front and center in a plan to conspire — collude, if you will — with Russians to help him win the presidency. This almost certainly would make Trump’s mantra of “no collusion” a baldfaced lie and his conduct over the past 18 months (e.g. denying knowledge of the meeting, writing a phony account of the meeting, badgering Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself, threatening the special prosecutor, firing James B. Comey as FBI director, concocting bizarre and false conspiracy theories to distract investigators) nothing short of obstruction of justice. But that is a really big “if.”

Trump denied the report by tweet:

But then again, the president has denied many things that turned out to be true.

Interestingly, Trump’s TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani didn’t deny the allegations Thursday night; he simply attacked Cohen’s credibility. Giuliani’s defense that Cohen is a “pathological liar” raises the question as to why the president would employ such a scoundrel for years. Moreover, given that Trump has told thousands of lies as president and that the large majority of Americans think Trump is dishonest, he’s not in a particularly strong position to get into a credibility contest with Cohen.

Step back for a moment. Cohen’s potential testimony is nothing short of amazing — the sort of one-in-a-million piece of evidence prosecutors dream about obtaining. Now of course it is true that many observers strongly suspected Trump must have known about the meeting that transpired. Donald Trump Jr., many onlookers surmised, would never have gone forward with the meeting without getting a thumbs up from his father.

Moreover, The Post recounts events three days after Donald Trump Jr. replied “I love it” when offered dirt on Hillary Clinton: Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov spoke (a call Trump Jr. claimed not to remember but which Agalarov did). Call logs suggest that Agalarov called Trump Jr. at 4:04 p.m. on June 6 and they spoke for a minute or two. About 20 minutes later, Trump Jr. received a call from a blocked number, after which he immediately called Agalarov back. The latter call lasted three minutes; the next morning, the meeting was set up (after which Trump Jr. placed calls to both campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the other two meeting attendees — calls Trump Jr. didn’t remember).

The same evening as the calls to Agalarov, Trump gave a victory speech after winning several GOP primaries. “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” he said during the speech. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend, who knows.” And that comes on top of an Associated Press report that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting, “worked more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously let on.”

Now, circumstantial evidence like this is strong, but nothing compared with a direct witness. Prosecutors will need to interview Cohen, get those phone records, interview all other people possibly aware of Trump’s decision to authorize the meeting and track down other corroborating evidence to make out a compelling case. Cohen’s testimony, if credible, would make for a compelling case, possibly entailing conspiracy; perpetrating a fraud on the United States; soliciting illegal, foreign help in a campaign; and obstruction. Anyone who denied Trump’s role or otherwise intentionally misled prosecutors and/or Congress will have to worry about his own liability for perjury, obstruction and other related crimes.

Max Bergmann, who heads the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, tells me, “This revelation reveals what has been staring us in the face: Trump was part of the collusion. He wasn’t some innocent bystander on his campaign.” He argues, “Trump ran the Trump campaign. We know this because everybody — from embedded reporters, to Trump campaign staff, to Trump himself — told us that he was fully in charge. So when it came to the most important decision of his campaign — whether or not to collude with Russia — of course he was involved.” He adds, “This is now a national security crisis. We have a President of the United States that almost certainly aided and abetted an attack on American democracy.”

Constitutional scholar and Supreme Court litigator Laurence Tribe tweeted, “If Cohen credibly testifies Trump knew in advance of the 6/9/16 meeting that Donald Jr, Jared, etc, had with Viselnitskaya & other Russians in Trump Tower to get dirt against Clinton in June 2016, that’s direct evidence of Trump/Putin collusion. Huge.”

Several points are worth underscoring. First, the latest Cohen news reminds us that we know a fraction of the potential facts in the Russia case. Roger Stone, Manafort and Cohen — if persuaded to cooperate — could have substantial, relevant information, including knowledge of the Russian hacking.

Second, if Trump’s direct approval of cooperation with Russians can be proved, it will be the biggest political scandal in American history. His presidency for all intents and purposes would be delegitimized. We are talking about a presidential candidate who sought and received help from a hostile foreign power, covered it up and “repaid” the favor by public obsequiousness to that power’s leader. Again, this has yet to be proved.

Third, Republicans who have enabled Trump by smearing law enforcement, creating bogus scandals, defending Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department and rationalizing support for his presidency (“But Gorsuch!”) risk public humiliation and ruin. Nothing Trump has done or could possibly do would make up for participation in a conspiracy and obstruction, not to mention betrayal of his country. (Members of Congress who may have actively conspired with the White House themselves could have legal exposure.)

Fourth, the potential discrediting of a presidency and the delegitimization of an elected commander in chief  is gravely serious and should be resolved before Trump picks a Supreme Court justice (who potentially could determine Trump’s fate). Finally, members of the administration should be very, very careful before throwing around Trump’s favorite phrases (“witch hunt!”) and trying to discredit the investigation. In fact, before this gets even messier, now might be a good time for staffers to exit and get far away from this unfolding legal disaster.