This article has been updated.
In the hours after Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to various crimes on Tuesday, his attorney Lanny Davis appeared on a number of television shows and granted other interviews centered on a common theme: Cohen has information that could be of interest to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
This isn’t by itself surprising, of course. Cohen served the Trump Organization for years and Trump directly during the campaign and for some months afterward. Cohen has already implicated Trump in efforts to violate campaign finance laws to cover up affairs in which Trump allegedly participated. That he might be willing and able to implicate him in other ways comes as little shock.
The question, though, is how. What information might Cohen possess that could help Mueller better understand how the Trump campaign might have interacted with Russian interference efforts in 2016?
The hints from Cohen and his allies
During his media blitz, Davis made one consistent claim. On MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” Davis said Cohen had “knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.” To The Washington Post, Davis elaborated somewhat: “If there is a conversation and a plan for there to be dirt on Hillary Clinton, and then someone knows the way you’re willing to get the dirt is a Russian agent called WikiLeaks . . . and then WikiLeaks hacks into an email account, which is a crime, then you have committed a crime of conspiracy.”
This is all vague, which could be (as Davis claims) to protect attorney-client privilege and could be (as skeptics might claim) because Davis — a Democrat and Clinton ally — wants Mueller to give Cohen a deal in which the threat of prison time is removed. The assertion to Maddow could simply result in a statement like, “No, Trump didn’t know about the hacking, though he did publicly cheer it on in a news conference.” The claim Davis made to our Isaac Stanley-Becker about WikiLeaks includes an allegation about possible hacking by WikiLeaks, which comes from way out of the blue.
Regardless, maybe Cohen knows that Trump knew more about hacking efforts earlier than he has claimed. Hard to say from Davis’s comments — but it’s also not hard to believe that he might have.
We know, too, that Cohen has alleged (through intermediaries) that he has information about Trump being aware of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in advance. That allegation emerged late last month and would be important for reasons that extend beyond revealing Trump as having lied about his awareness of the meeting. Experts who’ve spoken with The Post note that it’s illegal for a campaign to accept things of value from a foreign actor, including negative information about a political opponent. It’s illegal, too, to solicit any such valuable thing, a prohibition that includes being aware of and encouraging a contribution. If Trump knew about the meeting, he could be accused of having participated in a criminal conspiracy.
It’s very unlikely Trump would be indicted on such a charge, especially given how speculative it is. It’s worth noting that Cohen’s presentation of what happened during the campaign falls into the same category: His revealing that Trump was intimately involved in decisions to pay hush money to the president’s alleged mistresses almost certainly wouldn’t result in criminal charges.
We can speculate in all sorts of ways about what Cohen might be able to offer. He was centrally involved in many decision made by Trump before and after the campaign. Real estate deals, business arrangements, possibly other agreements with other individuals over the years. Cohen may be more knowledgeable about certain parts of Trump’s finances than Trump’s accountants or than is revealed in Trump’s tax returns. It’s hard to know.
Remember, too, that Cohen’s testimony to Mueller would be important for another reason: It would add a new layer of understanding to a lot of what has been asserted by other witnesses. Cohen could describe his interactions with Trump before the Trump Tower meeting in a way that makes clear that other witnesses had lied to investigators from the FBI, giving them new leverage over those witnesses to try to get to the truth about what the campaign was up to.
Or maybe Cohen knows something even more squarely in Mueller’s purview.
What the dossier alleges
Cohen is a prominent figure in the dossier of reports written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which was first published by BuzzFeed last year. This dossier has become a focal point of questions about Russian interference and any cooperation the Trump campaign may have provided. Trump’s defenders justifiably point out that the dossier is full of allegations for which there’s no outside evidence. It is, in short, a collection of things Steele heard from his sources meant to spur further investigation.
In the context of this week’s developments, it’s worth walking through what Steele’s reports indicate about Cohen and the extent to which any of the assertions have been validated.
Cohen, the reports claim, played “a key role in the secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.” The documents allege that Cohen stepped into the role of primary liaison with Russia in August 2016 after Paul Manafort resigned from the campaign following new reports about his relationship with a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine. Cohen, a report from October reads, “was heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of [Trump’s] relationship with Russia being exposed.”
Per “a Kremlin insider” who spoke with Steele, Cohen met with “Kremlin representatives” in August or September of that year in Prague. That alleged meeting may have taken place at Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian center for science and culture in the city. Attendees may have included Konstantin Kosachev, a member of the upper chamber of Russia’s legislature, and Oleg Solodukhin, who works for Rossotrudnichestvo. Steele’s reports indicate that the meeting was originally supposed to be in Moscow, but that was judged too risky.
Another report indicates that Cohen was accompanied by “3 colleagues” to the meeting. The agenda included questions about how “deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the [Hillary Clinton] campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the [Trump] team more generally.” The dossier alleges that Cohen was aware of a company that had targeted Democratic leaders by planting bugs and stealing data. In the meeting, the two sides allegedly agreed to protect that operation and to have “Romanian hackers” be paid off and cease their work.
We can overlay any number of theories onto this presentation of what might have happened. The initial release of files stolen from the Democratic National Committee involved a Russian intelligence officer claiming to be Romanian, for example, though that was publicly known at the time of Steele’s report. The government’s description of Cohen’s crimes released in conjunction with his plea deal on Tuesday includes a reimbursement to Cohen of $50,000 for “ ’tech services,’ which in fact related to work COHEN had solicited from a technology company during and in connection with the campaign.” It’s not clear what that was.
All of it, though, stems from Cohen having traveled to Prague in the late summer of 2016. In April, McClatchy reported that Mueller’s team uncovered evidence of such a visit, but that hasn’t been otherwise confirmed.
Obviously, Cohen might be able to do so.
Update: That just got a lot more unlikely. In an interview with Bloomberg, Davis stated flatly that Cohen “has never been to Prague in his life.”
The fairest assumption is that the dossier’s allegations are more likely untrue than true. Cohen may not have any information about any link between the Trump campaign and Russia that’s more serious than what’s known publicly. He may have information that adds a little shading to the picture of what happened but doesn’t offer anything earth-shattering.
On Tuesday, though, Cohen did make an unexpected assertion of remarkable significance: that Trump told him to take actions that violated campaign finance laws. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could offer something significant to Mueller, too.