This hearing was supposed to stay away from issues involving Russia; that topic will be taken up during Cohen’s closed-door hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. But Cohen did say this in his prepared testimony: “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.”
Cohen said his suspicions are based on President Trump’s behavior toward Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. In other words, he has the same suspicions shared by much of the country. But suspicions are not evidence.
Cohen did point out that he did not work for the campaign. He was not part of such key events as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between members of the Trump campaign and Russians claiming to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton. He was not necessarily in a position to know all the details about the campaign’s inner workings. Still, it was noteworthy that someone as close to the president as Cohen was not able to provide any evidence that the campaign actively worked with the Russians.
Cohen did recount an incident, shortly before the Trump Tower meeting, when the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. came into Trump’s office, went behind his father’s desk and said in a low voice, “The meeting is all set.” Cohen speculated this could have been a reference to the meeting with the Russians, but he doesn’t know for certain. Even if we assume it was, that would prove only that the president knew the meeting took place, something most people already assumed must be true. And taking the meeting alone would not be a crime — everything would depend on what, if anything, was agreed to or done as a result of that meeting. As to that, Cohen had no information.
Cohen also reported overhearing a phone call between Trump and Roger Stone in July 2016. He said Stone told Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, and that Assange said WikiLeaks would soon release a large volume of emails that would damage Clinton’s campaign. Cohen said, “Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.’” Stone, of course, was recently indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for lying to Congress about his connections to WikiLeaks and the campaign. WikiLeaks has denied that Assange ever spoke to Stone, and Stone’s indictment suggests he worked through intermediaries. Of course, Stone could have falsely claimed to have spoken to Assange directly to inflate his own importance in Trump’s eyes. But even if the call from Stone was exactly as recounted by Cohen, it merely shows Trump’s knowledge of WikiLeaks’s plans. Assuming it was a crime to publish the stolen emails — which is far from clear — simply knowing someone else may commit a crime does not make you a co-conspirator. And the nature of Trump’s response — “wouldn’t that be great” — suggests the release was something out of his hands, not something in which he was involved.
Cohen generally came across as a witness trying not to say more than he actually knows. What he actually knows, of course, is extremely damaging. He described Trump as an inveterate liar, a racist and a cheat. He implicated the president in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws through the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. He suggested that Trump and his family could be compromised based on their financial dealings with Russia. He made clear that Trump may face real legal peril from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, where Cohen said he has been cooperating in several ongoing investigations.
But when it comes to collusion, Cohen’s testimony was consistent with the president knowing about, and welcoming, Russia’s help to win the election but not actually conspiring with the Russians. Whether other witnesses have provided evidence of a Russian conspiracy involving the president or others in his campaign remains to be seen. But Wednesday’s hearing makes it pretty clear any such evidence is not going to come from Cohen.