The news that Michael Cohen will testify to Congress that President Trump committed crimes while in office provides an occasion to step back and remind ourselves of the big picture when it comes to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, which is said to be in its final stages.
Trump’s propaganda machine is triumphally pre-spinning a grand exoneration out of the expectation that Mueller will not bring charges against Trump or his associates for conspiracy with Russian sabotage of our election. Savvy reporters are telling us the attorney general’s report to Congress on Mueller’s findings will disclose disappointingly little.
So let’s reconnect ourselves with two very fundamental realities that this whole affair has already brought to light:
- It has already been established that Trump himself committed very serious and extensive misconduct, and possibly crimes as well, and it has already been confirmed that multiple top Trump associates committed extensive wrongdoing and numerous crimes. Trump repeatedly lied to the American people about this misconduct.
- It has already been established that a foreign power engaged in a wide-ranging effort to corrupt our democracy for the purpose of electing Trump president, and that Trump and his associates eagerly benefited from and actively tried to participate in this scheme. Trump lied to the American people about this, too. And he engaged in extensive efforts to prevent a full accounting of all of it from taking place.
When Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal fixer, publicly appears before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, he will testify to the following things, according to reports in The Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times:
- Cohen will “for the first time publicly accuse the president of criminal conduct while in office related to a hush-money payment to a porn star.”
- Cohen will “offer ‘very specific details’ — some of which have not yet been made public — about arranging the hush-money payments at Trump’s direction.”
- Cohen will “discuss how long Mr. Trump continued to ask about plans for a Trump Tower project in Moscow after the Iowa caucuses had taken place in February 2016.”
- Cohen is “expected to recount racist remarks Mr. Trump allegedly made to him, including instances in which Mr. Trump allegedly questioned the intelligence of African-Americans.”
We should view everything that Cohen says through the prism of his supremely oily and dishonest history, and the possibility that he’s now lying for self-interested purposes.
However, Mueller has determined that Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and is cooperating with the special counsel’s office, is now offering “credible” information that is “consistent with other evidence” it has gathered.
Regardless, let’s look at what Cohen will allege in light of what we already know. Cohen has said publicly that Trump directed the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels knowingly to benefit his campaign, a likely criminal violation of campaign finance law. Crucially, Trump has not seriously denied Cohen’s charge; he has mainly said he didn’t knowingly direct illegal payments and it was on Cohen to handle this “private transaction” legally. Trump’s fixer failed to fix things for him cleanly.
So Trump may be on the hook for a felony, and he may be facing charges after he leaves office.
Meanwhile, Cohen has also claimed publicly that Trump’s business organization privately negotiated over a Trump Tower in Moscow far longer than previously known — deep into the GOP presidential primaries. Here, too, Trump has essentially shrugged, saying he didn’t expect to win, so of course he was going to keep making money.
But this is extremely serious misconduct on Trump’s part. He spent months arguing to voters that we should improve relations with Russia as part of what he presented as a good-faith agenda in the national interest, without disclosing his direct financial stake in these arguments.
Trump lied to the American people about both of these things. He initially lied about knowing of the hush-money payments, and he lied about the Moscow project talks. Both infuse Trump’s election with fraudulent behavior. He denied voters information about campaign expenditures designed to cover up alleged affairs, and denied them information about ongoing business negotiations with Russia.
Cohen’s testimony may add more detail to our understanding of both. And as Timothy O’Brien notes, Cohen is hinting he may shed light on how the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer was involved in the hush-money scheme, which could open a window on other aspects of Trump’s business dealings (which are still being examined by prosecutors).
Extensive wrongdoing has already been established
All this will be another reminder, from Trump’s former personal lawyer, of just how much wrongdoing — and possible criminality — has already been established.
“Cohen’s testimony will cause a national audience that may be accustomed to Trump’s behavior to confront the wide range of lies he has told to cover up misconduct,” Bob Bauer, the White House counsel under President Barack Obama, tells me, including “his denial he had anything to do with hush-money payments, that he had any business dealings with Russia during the campaign, that he has nothing to hide in his business or tax history.”
Beyond all this, the Mueller investigation has already established an extensive criminal plot by Russia to sabotage the election on Trump’s behalf. We already know Trump’s top campaign advisers, in attending that 2016 Trump Tower meeting, eagerly tried to conspire with what they fully believed was a Russian government effort in that regard.
Even if Mueller does not bring criminal charges, we already know that happened. We already know Trump helped Donald Trump Jr. lie to the American people about this meeting, too. We already know Trump engaged in extensive, repeated efforts to derail a full accounting of all of it, including of a foreign attack on our democracy irrespective of whether his campaign conspired with it.
As Brian Beutler observes, all of these things go to the core of “our understanding of how Trump came to power” and just how infused that was with criminality and deception, an understanding that is enormously important to arrive at but is “still developing.”
Yes, a limited disclosure of Mueller’s findings will be a setback. It will deny us information we need to better understand the full scope and range of misconduct on both the collusion and obstruction fronts. Democrats should and will try to rectify this.
But whatever is to be in that regard, we already know a great deal about what happened here. No amount of fake claims of vindication from a cramped Mueller disclosure can make all of that disappear.