The president’s chief defense all along to the legal chaos happening around him has been “witch hunt!” That got harder when the jury in Virginia declared Paul Manafort a witch on eight counts. At that point the spin shifted to “their crimes have nothing to do with me.” Two minutes later, Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation allegedly at the direction of an unnamed presidential candidate.
And so the goalposts moved a few more yards: “What does this any of this have to do with Russia? This was all supposed to be about Russia and collusion.” (Cohen was prosecuted by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, not by Mueller as part of Russiagate, but never mind that.)
Is Cohen about to tear down those goalposts too? His lawyer, Lanny Davis, is pushing some mighty provocative stuff to the media today. Last night he issued a statement explicitly accusing Trump of having committed a crime by directing Cohen to make the Stormy payoff. Today he’s going for the jackpot by hinting — although no more than hinting — that Cohen has something important to tell Mueller about the Russia hackings two years ago. Here he was last night on Rachel Maddow:
LANNY DAVIS, MICHAEL COHEN’S ATTORNEY: So, I can’t tell you the answer to that about contacts between Michael and the special counsel. But I can tell you that Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel, and is more than happy to tell the special counsel all that he knows. Not just about the obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election, which the Trump Tower meeting was all about, but also knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and even cheered it on.
Omarosa also claimed in an interview last week that Trump knew of the hacked emails before Wikileaks released them. Hmmm. You trust two reputable characters like her and Lanny Davis, don’t you?
WaPo followed up with him. What does Michael Cohen know? But Davis was coy:
“A conspiracy to commit a crime becomes a crime if there’s one overt act — meaning you do anything to implement the crime,” Davis added. “So if there is a conversation and a plan for there to be dirt on Hillary Clinton, and then someone knows the way you’re willing to get the dirt is a Russian agent called WikiLeaks . . . and then WikiLeaks hacks into an email account, which is a crime, then you have committed a crime of conspiracy.”
A crime of conspiracy, he maintained, “could mean that somebody knows about a crime about to be committed and doesn’t call the FBI.”
Davis said Cohen’s possible knowledge of criminal conspiracy was not limited to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and Kremlin-aligned lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The heavily scrutinized encounter, Davis said, “requires an overt act to be criminal.” This month, Trump acknowledged that the purpose of the meeting was to “get information on an opponent” but said the method was “totally legal and done all the time in politics.”
At no point in that answer or in his answer to Maddow does Davis ever directly accuse Trump of knowing what Russia and/or Wikileaks were up to before the public did. He told Maddow that Cohen has knowledge of whether Trump knew about it, which implies that he did. (Maybe the information Cohen has is “Trump didn’t know.”) And he didn’t mention Trump at all in his spiel to WaPo, leaving it unclear if he thinks POTUS himself conspired with Russia or if it was campaign officers like Don Jr who did. The guy in Trump’s orbit who had the most direct contact with Wikileaks, at least as far as the public knows, is Roger Stone. Stone also seemed at times during the campaign to be able to predict when Wikileaks was about to uncork something. Did Stone tell Trump something at the time?
If he was tipped off by Assange that a big new release was in the works and he relayed that to Trump, is that impeachable because Trump didn’t call the FBI? What if Trump and Stone didn’t know exactly what Wikileaks had, i.e. hacked emails, only that they had “something”? What if they knew that Wikileaks had hacked emails but didn’t realize that it was Russian intelligence that was laundering them through Assange? There’s still room for those goalposts to move further before Mueller’s in field-goal range.
Plus (and lawyers are invited to correct me on this), there’s an important difference between whether Trump knew before the hackings happened or whether he knew before the already-hacked emails were released. The former is clearly more serious than the latter. If he knew a crime was about to be committed and didn’t report it because he expected he’d benefit from it politically, that’s maximum impeachment bait. If the crime had already been committed when Trump found out about it and realistically there was nothing the FBI could do to stop the stolen emails from being released, there’s a little wiggle room there for congressional Republicans to say, “Not good, but not enough to justify removal from office.” Although that itself might depend on whether Team Trump had any input into when Wikileaks dumped what they had.
Speaking of impeachment, I’ve thought all along that Dems would stay away from it if they take the House this fall because they’re justifiably spooked about what happened to the GOP in 1998. Yesterday probably changed the equation, though, especially since the GOP is likely to hold the Senate next year. Democrats now have the president’s lawyer admitting in open court that he directed him to commit a campaign-finance crime. They could impeach him on that ground, insisting that Trump shouldn’t be allowed to use the office of the presidency to shield himself from an indictment when probable cause of a crime now exists, knowing that that would create a huge political headache for Senate Republicans. The Senate GOP would defeat the attempt to remove him, which requires 67 votes, but they’d be forced to spend weeks in the process insisting that Trump’s apparent crime wasn’t “that bad” or whatever. The cost of an impeachment attempt has dropped for Dems and risen for Republicans, all thanks to Cohen.
Or, to put it another way:
Trump folks are worried about impeachment more than before. The thinking goes like this: this is something tangible, not a theoretical. And it didn't come from Mueller. Does not mean it will happen, but this has moved to a different stage in their minds.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 21, 2018
For the same reason, I think congressional Republicans are more open to the idea of mass pardons for Trump cronies than they were before. Until now they’ve opposed that, fearing that some overt attempt by the president to hand all of his pals get-out-of-jail-free cards would bring down a political sh*tstorm on them, with Democrats hooting all the way that Trump is the swampiest president in history. There was no need to invite that sort of heat when no one close to Trump had been convicted of anything yet. Now you’ve got Michael Cohen copping a plea on the same day that Trump’s campaign manager became the biggest fish yet bagged by Mueller. There’s no telling how much worse this could get. If you’re a Republican congressman or senator, you might well conclude at this point that a big pardon fiasco is the *least* painful option available, as it would end the Mueller drama and at least begin to put all of this in the party’s rearview mirror. They might get wrecked in the midterms because of it, but then again they might not — voters would have two months to put this behind them. From a position of raw political self-interest, which is all anyone cares about anymore, why not do it?
Here’s Davis on ABC this morning insisting that Cohen wouldn’t accept one of Trump’s dirty, dirty pardons even if it were offered. We’ll see about that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start drafting my post for Friday about how none of the latest job approval polls this week show any damage to the president from the Cohen and Manafort convictions.