We’ve expected for some time that Wednesday might offer explosive new revelations about President Trump’s 2016 campaign and his private business, given that Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill. What was not predicted is how little time Wednesday would wait in delivering those revelations.
Shortly after midnight, both the New York Times and Politico published copies of the statement Cohen would offer at the outset of his testimony. Contained in that statement are a number of potentially damaging allegations.
We’ll note at the outset that Cohen’s track record on testifying before Congress is not unblemished; he’s already admitted to having lied to congressional investigators about the duration of discussions about a possible development deal in Moscow. But Cohen’s statement includes three new allegations involving the president that, if true, are each significant for what they would indicate about the president and his campaign’s interactions with Russian interference efforts.
Roger Stone and WikiLeaks
According to a copy of the Cohen’s prepared statement, Cohen says that Trump knew WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, would release material stolen from the Democratic National Committee before it happened — because he heard it from his longtime adviser Roger Stone.
The statement reads:
“In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.’”
This timeline is remarkable. The Democratic convention began on July 25, 2016; WikiLeaks began releasing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee on July 22. According to an indictment obtained by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against the Russian intelligence officers believed to have hacked the DNC network, WikiLeaks requested data from the hackers in late June, after some initial files were published, and only confirmed receipt of the stolen data on July 18. That presents a fairly small window for Stone to have learned about the release, especially since Cohen’s statement indicates the call came a few days before July 22.
Update: During his questioning, Cohen indicated that he believed the call was on July 18 or 19 -- probably the latter.
Stone was indicted by Mueller’s team last month on charges of offering false statements and obstructing justice. The indictment indicates Stone told “senior Trump campaign officials” in June or July that WikiLeaks had documents that could damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. But, then, Assange had said as much on TV in mid-June.
The indictment also mentioned that Stone was contacted by a “senior campaign official” on July 22, 2016. The official “was directed” to contact Stone to have him find out what else WikiLeaks had. Who did that direction has not been publicly determined. It’s only after this point that Stone’s known outreach to WikiLeaks took place, including contacting an associate with indirect ties to the group.
There’s no evidence at this point to tie Stone to Assange directly. In fact, internal WikiLeaks messages and direct Twitter messages between Stone and WikiLeaks suggest he didn’t have any link to the organization. The day before the release, July 21, WikiLeaks teased the coming release in a tweet without identifying the DNC. (While Cohen’s statement at one point indicates Trump knew specifically about the DNC document releases, his description of the call doesn’t specify that detail.)
Perhaps Stone, true to form, saw that tweet or heard other rumors and amplified them to Trump. What Cohen suggests in his statement, though, is something more robust. If Stone did have a connection with Assange that allowed him to inform Trump about WikiLeaks’ actions, the distance between the candidate and Russia’s interference efforts is much shorter than realized.
There’s one more land mine here, and it’s a big one. In November, CNN reported that Trump’s written responses to Mueller included a denial that Stone had told him about WikiLeaks. If Cohen’s testimony and CNN’s reporting are accurate, then Trump’s response was false.
The Trump Tower meeting
Last year, there was a brief ripple of interest after several news outlets reported that Cohen was prepared to tell Mueller that Trump knew about the infamous June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting in advance. Cohen’s team quickly downplayed those reports, and the issue burbled away.
This meeting, of course, was the one that originated on June 3 when Donald Trump Jr. received an email offering a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had derogatory information about Clinton. This, the email said, was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr.'s famous response? “[I]f it’s what you say I love it."
It’s remained unclear, though, if Trump did know about the meeting in advance. It was finalized only on the afternoon of June 7, after Trump Jr. spoke with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner. (He also spoke with a Russian developer named Emin Agalarov whose agent has sent the initial email — at least according to Agalarov.)
That night, Trump clinched the Republican nomination, promising during his victory speech that he would deliver a speech the following Monday in which he would be “discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” That comment sparked a great deal of speculation that Trump did indeed know about the meeting at the time.
Cohen’s prepared statement doesn’t say he did — but it certainly hints at it.
“I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened. Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk — which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: ‘The meeting is all set.' I remember Mr. Trump saying, 'Ok good ... let me know.’”
This struck Cohen in part because, the statement reads, “nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval” — suggesting Trump must have known.
When Trump Jr.’s involvement in the meeting came to light in July 2017, it settled one question definitively: A senior campaign official was told Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign and the official, Trump Jr., embraced the idea. If Trump himself knew about the meeting — always a distinct possibility despite Trump’s denials — it suggests the candidate himself was willing to accept Russia’s help.
In fact, the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept the meeting could itself have been in violation of the law, as former White House counsel Bob Bauer explained to The Washington Post in August of last year.
“The law prohibits Americans from soliciting foreign nationals’ assistance,” Bauer said. “The solicitation provision is very broad. You don’t have to specifically say, ‘I really would like you to do X’; you could indicate, since they’ve already said they want to help you out, that you’re open for business. That you actually want their support.”
(CNN reported that Trump’s responses to Mueller denied advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting as well.)
The hush-money payments
Remarkably, perhaps the least damaging new detail offered by Cohen is one that relates to one of the most obvious examples of improper behavior by the president.
In the final months of the 2016 campaign, Cohen helped arrange payments to two women aimed at keeping them from going public with stories of alleged affairs with Trump. One payment, made through the parent company of the National Enquirer, was to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The other, paid by Cohen himself, went to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.
We’ve known for some time that Cohen was reimbursed for the $130,000 he paid Daniels through checks that came over the course of 2017. We didn’t know, however, the details below.
“Mr. Trump directed me to use my own personal funds from a Home Equity Line of Credit to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign. ...”
“I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1, 2017 — when he was President of the United States — pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me — the word used by Mr. Trump’s TV lawyer — for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf. This $35,000 check was one of 11 check installments that was paid throughout the year — while he was president.”
“The president of the United States,” the statement continues, “thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.”
Again, the allegation that Trump directed Cohen to make this payment to protect the campaign has been out there. That he directed Cohen to use the funds from his line of credit — a line of credit, we’ll note, that Cohen admitted he obtained through fraud — and that the repayments came directly from Trump is new.
“Cohen’s public testimony directly implicates Trump in serious campaign finance violations,” said former FEC general counsel Lawrence Noble over email. “Assuming Cohen is telling the truth about the purpose of the checks, the checks are documentary evidence supporting the allegation that Trump had Cohen pay Daniels $135,000 in hush money and then reimbursed Cohen.”
“Cohen’s advance of the hush money was an illegal excessive campaign contribution and should have been reported by the campaign,” Noble added. “Trump’s reimbursement of Cohen was a campaign expenditure which should have also been reported.” That neither was reported is a violation of campaign finance law according to Noble.
The good news for Trump is that campaign finance violations pale in comparison to the worst-case scenarios implied by the other two revelations included in Cohen’s statement.