Attention, drivers. There’s a multi-car pileup on the information superhighway. On Wednesday, the cable news networks were trying to cover both the North Korea summit and Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony. It was hardly possible to devote any attention to the growing hostilities between two nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan. Other major stories — the Venezuela crisis, the negotiations with the Taliban, the House vote to override President Trump’s emergency declaration — were left on the side of the road.
Trump was left seething and tweeting in Hanoi as his former consigliere upstaged him. At the best of times, Trump has the attention span of a hyperactive 8-year-old. Distracted by Cohen’s testimony, Trump was likely to be even less prepared than usual and even more likely to grant concessions to Kim Jong Un simply to draw attention back to himself. House Democrats would have been better advised to let this major summit proceed without any domestic distractions.
But, really, Trump can’t blame anyone but himself for the fact that his forays abroad keep getting upstaged by shocking revelations. Who can forget, for example, the president dictating false talking points in July 2017 about a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian envoy a year earlier while he was flying back from the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg? If Trump doesn’t want to be overshadowed by scandalous news, he shouldn’t do so many scandalous things.
Cohen’s testimony includes accusations — relating to Trump’s racism, his lack of concern for the public weal and his attempts to conceal his academic record — that, if true, are simply embarrassing. But, as noted by Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, the president’s former lawyer also implicated him in at least four felonies:
1. Conspiracy to defraud the United States. Cohen testified that he was present in July 2016 when Trump took a call on the speakerphone from Roger Stone, who said “that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” According to Cohen, Trump replied, “Wouldn’t that be great.” (Stone has denied that account, in possible violation of a judge’s gag order.) Trump cannot claim that he did not know where the leaked emails ultimately came from: It had been public knowledge since mid-June 2016 that Russian hackers had penetrated the Democratic National Committee.
2. Lying to the FBI and the Justice Department. According to CNN, Trump, in his written testimony to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, claimed “that Roger Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, nor was he told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.” Cohen contradicted those assertions.
3. Suborning perjury. Cohen testified that Trump encouraged him to lie to Congress about his attempts in 2016 to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and that his personal lawyers reviewed the mendacious testimony.
4. Violating campaign finance laws. Cohen testified that Trump told him to pay off a porn star and reimbursed him for doing so. Cohen even produced a check Trump signed while he was president and another one that was signed by Donald Trump Jr., implicating the president’s son in this felony, as well.
To these four offenses, one may add: 5. Bank, wire and tax fraud. Cohen testified that Trump inflated his assets to win bank loans and deflated them to reduce his taxes — precisely the kind of scheme for which Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is now facing lengthy prison time. And Cohen added that he knew of other offenses that federal prosecutors are still investigating.
The response from Trumplandia was predictable: The president’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, denied any wrongdoing by his client and once again called Cohen a lying liar. That’s pretty rich coming from a representative of a president who has told more than 8,700 lies since taking office and who less than a year ago called Cohen a “fine person.” It’s true that Cohen is a crook and liar — after all, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress — but he has every incentive to tell the truth now. Cohen has already been sentenced to three years in prison. He will not reduce his sentence any further with his testimony — but he could substantially add to it if he once again lied to Congress. He was, after all, testifying under oath, something Trump notably refuses to do. Cohen, a convicted felon, sounded more credible and convincing than the president — or his Republican defenders. He may go down as the John Dean of Russia-gate.
A president who is distracted by scandal cannot carry out the people’s business — and this is already the biggest scandal in American history. President Richard M. Nixon was said to be in an alcoholic haze, talking to the portraits in the White House, as he was engulfed by Watergate. President Ronald Reagan was said to be so out of it during the worst of the Iran-contra affair that there was talk of invoking the 25th Amendment.
We must wait for future White House memoirs to learn the details of how Trump is coping with the latest revelations. (Spoiler alert: badly.) But he was never as competent as his predecessors, and his incapacity has been exacerbated by all of the scandals he has created. There are only two ways out: resignation or impeachment. Otherwise, the United States will suffer through nearly two more years of this car wreck of a presidency.