Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the recent insights into the efforts of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to bag President Donald Trump. There is little ambiguity in these efforts: while Trump is being called a “subject” of the investigation, he is being treated as a “target.” That danger became more apparent with the later allegations of Michael Cohen that he not only lied to support Trump’s account but that the worked with Trump’s counsel in preparing his false testimony. He claims to have had “regular contact” with Trump counsel during that period. That would pose some serious questions for counsel if Cohen was clear that he was giving false testimony. However, he does not say that. It still remains unclear how much Cohen is suggesting that the President or his counsel knew about the specifics on the “Moscow Project” or his own falsification of dates and information.
What is clear is that Mueller is still on the hunt for Trump and all eyes should be on Corsi, Stone, and possibly Donald Trump Jr. for the next move.
Joseph Heller, author of the classic war novel “Catch 22,” once remarked that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” President Trump must have had that feeling this week when it became clear that, indeed, most everyone is out to get him. From the planned subpoenas by Democrats in the House, to the new filings by special counsel Robert Mueller, to the recent confessions of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump has now reached the stage of post paranoia.
While the Justice Department has stressed that Trump is a “subject,” not a “target,” of the special counsel investigation, he appears to be a rather significant subject that features a virtual bulls eye. The week began with what might have seemed good news for Trump. Jerome Corsi, an associate of Trump confidant Roger Stone, refused a plea bargain from Mueller that he said would force him to lie. However, the draft of the agreement had a clear target in mind, and it definitely was not Corsi.
The draft notably refers to “Donald Trump” rather than using standard code like “Person One.” It further states that the Russians did in fact use WikiLeaks as a conduit for the public release of information. It described Stone as someone “Corsi understood to be in regular contact” with candidate Trump. It recounts how Stone allegedly told Corsi to “get to” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and how Corsi related that their “friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps” with “very damaging” information, and how in early 2017, Corsi allegedly “deleted from his computer all email correspondence that predated October 11, 2016.” Corsi has been clearly treated as the direct link to Stone, and Stone as the direct link to Trump.
Then came the guilty plea by Cohen for lying to Congress, an account loaded with clear shots at Trump, including Cohen stating he lied to be consistent with Trump and to try to limit the Russia investigation. According to a later leak, Cohen told Mueller he was led to believe he would be given a presidential pardon or some other protection if he continued to maintain this false account. There was very little ambiguity as to the person who gave Cohen that idea in the statement.
Not long after the start of the special counsel investigation, I wrote how one of the most pressing matters for Trump should be to sever his ties with Cohen, a lawyer with a dubious reputation. Instead, even as Cohen became more and more radioactive, Trump pulled him closer and publicly reaffirmed that Cohen remained his personal lawyer, including having an inexplicable dinner together at Mar-a-Lago. Those errors in judgment could now cost Trump dearly. Cohen lying to Congress does not implicate Trump unless he encouraged it, which could constitute subornation of perjury and other possible crimes, but it raises new questions about what Trump had known or even encouragement of such false testimony.
These efforts by Mueller to get a clean shot at Trump are less surprising than the lateness of the effort. While Mueller reportedly is working on at least one final report, his staff is still pushing hard to implicate Trump. There also is more evidence of a strategy on timing, as it seems likely that Cohen was held back from his plea in open court until after Trump submitted his written answers to the questions from the special counsel. While the known evidence falls short of a clear criminal connection to the president, the immediate danger could be a strategy to trigger Trump to commit possible impeachable offenses. The greatest injuries suffered by Trump in this legal controversy have been largely by his own hand.
The most obvious trigger would be a move against members of the Trump family. The admissions by Cohen could create conflicts with the testimony of Donald Trump Jr., in which he acknowledged the Moscow project but downplayed his knowledge or involvement. Ivanka Trump also reportedly worked on the project. Cohen says he lied to make it seem like the effort to build a Trump Tower ended in January 2016 when it continued well into the campaign until at least June 2016. He also admits to lying about communications with Russian officials and progress on the project.
If Mueller were to indict Trump Jr., he would likely wait until he indicted or secured pleas from most of the other players. This would make it more difficult to unravel the investigation and pending prosecutions. Any indictment of his son would likely trigger a furious response from Trump, and it is in such moments that the president is at his most vulnerable. Unlike past episodes, even a concerted White House staff effort in this case might not stop an enraged executive order to fire Mueller or the issuance of a slew of pardons to block prosecutions.
While some constitutional experts insist that firing a special counsel is not a crime, and therefore not impeachable, such a narrow view is contrary to the statements of the Framers and the history of impeachments. Many offenses are not federal crimes, yet they constitute impeachable abuses of power. Indeed, the Richard Nixon articles of impeachment included obstruction counts as well as the promising of “favored treatment and consideration” for witnesses to remain silent or to offer false testimony.
None of the prior “speaking indictments” or the latest information from Corsi or Cohen show that Mueller has made the critical linkage to Trump. It is clear that Trump associates were interested in seeing the WikiLeaks material, as Trump himself stated on the 2016 campaign trail. That is not a crime any more than it was a crime for Clinton campaign investigators to go to Russia to gather dirt on Trump, including information from Russian intelligence. Moreover, an unsuccessful building project in Moscow does not equal a quid pro quo any more than the tens of millions of dollars given to the Clintons, as speaking fees or foundation donations, equaled wrongdoing for Hillary Clinton as head of the State Department.
However, it is difficult to believe that Mueller has expended all of this effort simply to bag two notorious provocateurs like Corsi and Stone for making false statements. We do not know what evidence Mueller has on the president, but we certainly know what evidence he still wants.