Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the implications of Michael Cohen accusing Donald Trump of lying about his lack of prior notice of the meeting at Trump Tower with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Cohen’s allegations present an obvious risk not only to Trump but himself. What is most striking is that Cohen is alleging that specific people were in the room during Trump’s briefing and his approval of the meeting. That is an unnecessary risk to take if you are lying about the meeting as opposed to alleging a one-on-one conversation with Trump. Thus far, no one has corroborated his story while the Trump team is alleging proof that the critical tape has been altered.
Here is the column:
The evolution of Michael Cohen continued this week with his implication of Donald Trump in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyers in June 2016. This is all part of the new Michael Cohen rolled out last week by his lawyer, Lanny Davis. As Davis explained, it is all part of Cohen’s “new resolve” to “reset his life” where he is trying “to tell the truth.”
For most of us, truth is not so much an option as it is an obligation but, then, most of us are not like Michael Cohen. At best, Cohen comes across as Watergate-era attorney John Dean without the guilt (or discernible legal skills). At worst, he is the type of person once described by fabled Texan Sam Houston as having “all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” Whether this is the new or old Michael Cohen, his move this week could present serious perils for both himself and his former client, Donald Trump.
Trump has long denied prior knowledge of the Russian meeting. That position was supported by his son Donald Trump Jr. who spoke both under oath and to investigators. Trump Jr. was closely questioned on this very point, including possible calls to his father before or immediately after the meeting. Other Trump staff members and lawyers have repeated this denial. Yet, Cohen now alleges that Trump not only knew but approved the meeting. He reportedly said further that he could name other people in the room when Trump was briefed on the meeting and gave his approval.Trump today repeated his own denial and tweeted that “I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!”
It was a curious jab at Cohen for hiring Davis, since Trump has hired former Clinton lawyer Emmett Flood as his own counsel. However, the denial could not be more clear. In other words, someone is lying. Indeed, Cohen’s new role as a truth teller seems to have triggered a self-destructive impulse. This is a type of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) strategy with a twist. Usually you make such a threat to avoid the actual MAD move.
Here, Cohen is going MAD in the hope, perhaps, of post-apocalyptic survival through a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller. The new account seems to contradict Cohen’s prior statements to Congress and investigators when he was specifically pressed on this very question. Even if Mueller gives him a deal, it will not protect him from state charges and it could involve a guilty plea, as with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Of course, if Cohen’s account is corroborated, this could get real bad, real fast, for Trump. It is not that Cohen’s account changes the dynamic on collusion. Even if Trump approved the meeting, it could still be as it has been described — a willingness to hear alleged evidence of criminal conduct on the part of Hillary Clinton or her associates. However, in many ways, this would be more serious than trying to fashion some unknown crime of collusion. This would be a clear and often used crime of making false statements. It is the very crime that Mueller has used to indict a myriad of people in this investigation. It is not a risk for President Trump, who has not discussed this matter under oath or to federal investigators — but that may not matter, given the person in the crosshairs of such an allegation: Donald Trump Jr.
Once you go after the son, Trump could well act more as a parent than a president. If President Trump approved the meeting, Trump Jr. could be indicted under 18 U.S.C. 1001 as well as possible perjury laws. The same is true for some Trump aides, but this is his son. Ironically, Trump would be in the same position as Flynn, who copped a plea reportedly in part to protect his son, Michael Flynn Jr. Trump is not likely to cop a plea, since he has more options than did Flynn, but they are all bad options.
Trump’s visceral rhetoric has never been matched by real actions. That could change. He has long railed against the investigation and called for it to end. If Mueller were to pursue his son, Trump could lash out and fire Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and even Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That list could grow, since Trump may be hard-pressed to find anyone at the Justice Department willing to shut down this investigation (let alone the investigation being handled in the Southern District of New York).
Trump could also fire off a slew of pardons, even including one for himself. That would trigger cascading events which could well lead to criminal or impeachment counts, or both. At a minimum, it would push this matter on a fast track toward impeachment, just as the House of Representatives may flip to Democratic control in the November midterm elections.
New Jersey mobster Sam DeCavalcante once said, “Honest people have no ethics.” Cohen’s new found “honesty” appears to rest on the same dubious distinction, as he actively seeks to incriminate his former client to save himself with secret recordings and gotcha accounts. It also is possible that the “new” Cohen is a lot like the old Cohen — a stranger, perhaps, to both honesty and ethics. Nevertheless, he has the ability to move this scandal into a new and precarious stage for this administration.
Cohen now knows that he is fighting for simple survival, and that makes him dangerous. The real “truth” is that Cohen is done — but that does not mean he is finished.