Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday was explosive and raw. But the verdict is nonetheless clear: lots of political smoke, little impeachable fire.
Cohen’s allegations boil down to three points: 1. President Trump is a dishonest man, a pathological liar and a racist. 2. He directly used personal, corporate and foundation funds to silence porn stars; to inflate his personal assets to obtain bank financing; and to buy a painting of himself. 3. He knew in advance that WikiLeaks would release the hacked Clinton campaign emails and continued to negotiate for a project in Moscow during the presidential campaign while saying he wasn’t.
The first set of allegations adds salacious, but unverifiable, logs to the fire that has burned throughout Trump’s political career. None of this will matter to either Trump’s supporters or those in the middle who have long since decided that other matters, such as policy and his acts in office, are more important. Every month it seems we have a new personal revelation about Trump’s character and it doesn’t move the polls. As a political matter, this is, as lawyers in depositions say, “asked and answered.”
The second set of allegations is more troubling and could set the president up for legal trouble. While the specific campaign-finance violations Cohen pleaded guilty to have proved difficult to sustain when pursued (see the John Edwards case, which resulted in a hung jury when Edwards faced basically the same charge that Cohen levies on Trump), that doesn’t mean charges will not be brought. Misuse of charitable funds, if that is in fact what occurred, is also a potential violation of state laws. One can easily see the Southern District of New York or the New York attorney general’s office bringing charges if investigations affirm enough of Cohen’s claim.
Neither claim, however, will lead to Trump’s removal from office via impeachment. Democratic voters are eager to impeach the president, and perhaps these and other allegations will finally push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other House leadership to consent. But so far, clear majorities of Americans, which necessarily include millions of people who voted Democratic in the midterms, oppose impeachment. Nothing we heard Wednesday will shift those people’s minds, and as such, there is no chance Republicans in the Senate will vote to convict on any articles of impeachment based on these claims.
The final set of claims concern Russia, and here, Cohen’s testimony actually helps Trump. The key facts here come from his answers to a series of questions posed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla). Cohen was specifically asked whether Roger Stone was acting at the Trump campaign’s direction in communicating with WikiLeaks. Cohen said he was not and that he was acting as a “free agent.” From someone who had reason to know about how the campaign works, that statement alone is damning to the president’s accusers.
The Stone-WikiLeaks connection is the most direct and important evidence for the collusion narrative so far. If Cohen is to be believed, Stone was acting on his own all that time. That exonerates Trump and the campaign entirely in this specific matter.
Cohen made two other statements that tend to exonerate Trump of the collusion charge. He told Wasserman Schultz that he had no direct knowledge that Trump was signaling to Russia that he wanted the emails to be disgorged. He also said that he could not answer any allegations that Trump colluded with Russia: "I was not part of the campaign. I don’t know the other conversations Trump had with other individuals.”
His testimony also had an odd contradiction that casts doubt on any collusion claims. Pressed by committee Democrats, Cohen said he could believe Trump might collude with Russia because of his immense desire to win at all costs. Yet before those exchanges, Cohen was crystal clear that Trump never expected to win and that he thought of the entire exercise as a pure marketing campaign. Cohen can’t have it both ways.
It’s unbelievable that a hyper-competitive, narcissistic man would pursue winning at all costs and believe he wasn’t going to win. Hyper-competitiveness always produces false confidence in victory, not its opposite. Yet we have repeatedly heard, both throughout the campaign and in many post-campaign revelations, that Trump never thought he could win. Cohen’s initial statement is highly unflattering to Trump, but is likelier to be true than the subsequent forced concession.
Republicans will not vote to remove the president from office unless there is clear and convincing evidence that Trump was directly involved in something so compromising to the nation’s security that they have no alternative. Cohen’s testimony gives them the opposite: evidence that Stone wasn’t Trump’s agent and that the president thought victory was impossible and hence pursued a Moscow real estate deal for the sake of money, not the Oval Office.
The phrase “the American people” has been bandied about a lot in this hearing. They might hear this evidence and add it to a host of other allegations to conclude they don’t want to reelect Trump. But based on what we’ve heard so far, they aren’t going to want to impeach him.