The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that President Trump probably ought to be indicted when he leaves office for crimes his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen was convicted of committing on Trump’s behalf, arguing that the Justice Department policy recommending against indicting a siting president was “wrong.”
“It’s very difficult to make the argument that the person who was directed and was coordinated should go to jail, but the person who did the directing and coordinating should not,” panel chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told a gathering of journalists at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. “I don’t think that’s a supportable position. So I think that that militates very strongly in favor of indicting the president when he is out of office.”
A spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Schiff has in the past suggested that when Trump leaves office, he may face the same charges that have embroiled various subordinates and affiliates in federal court proceedings and precipitated several guilty pleas. And on Tuesday, he continued to defer to the eventual judgment of the Southern District of New York, if prosecutors there have the evidence to prove the case.
But after two days of closed-door sessions in which the intelligence panel interviewed Cohen, Schiff seemed confident that such documentary evidence exists, given that prosecutors’ indictment of Cohen “essentially names the president as an unindicted co-conspirator.”
“It certainly appears there’s no shortage of evidence,” Schiff said, citing canceled checks, audiotapes and witnesses who have cooperated with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
Cohen’s testimony before three separate congressional panels over the past two weeks has brought before the public some of the most incendiary testimony anyone from Trump’s inner circle has made against the president, as Cohen accused his former boss of making hush-money payments, committing bank fraud and pursuing business opportunities in Russia.
His turn through Capitol Hill also sparked fierce debate about the credibility of a witness who has already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 — and prompted a campaign from the GOP questioning not only Cohen’s motives but those of Schiff, as well, over a series of pre-interview meetings his staff held with Cohen.
Republican lawmakers have accused Schiff’s team of coaching Cohen during those sessions. Cohen, Schiff and their representatives have defended them as standard investigative procedure necessary to allow Cohen to review his previous testimony.
Democrats have accused Republicans of waging a political campaign to defend Trump by disparaging Cohen. Schiff stressed Tuesday that Trump may have an incentive in politically surviving the charges against him, as well, as winning a second term might keep him in office — where he could avoid being indicted as a sitting president — until after the statute of limitations on charges against him runs out.
In some cases, the statute of limitations is five years, indicating that if Trump is out of office by early 2021, he could be charged but that if he wins a second term, he couldn’t.
Schiff argued that possibility is the predominant reason the Justice Department’s policy of not indicting sitting presidents is flawed.
“The Justice Department policy against the indictment is the wrong policy, particularly when there is any risk that the statute of limitations may allow a president to escape justice,” Schiff argued.
“The risk that he could escape justice by waiting out the statute of limitations I think militates strongly against a department policy that precludes indictment,” Schiff said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to comment.