Trump's Michael Cohen Nightmare Is Just Getting Started
The president's trusted old friend has him closer than ever to impeachment—and he's not going away.
Donald Trump. Photo by Martin H. Simon/Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images. Michael Cohen social photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Most Americans first heard about Michael Cohen in 2015, when the idea of a Donald Trump presidency was still a joke, albeit not a funny one. That's when the longtime lawyer for the Trump Organization—a man we have since learned made a career out of proximity to Russian mobsters and may have been tied to money laundering involving all-cash real estate deals—emerged as the colorful, curse-prone fixer for Trump and his race-baiting campaign. In what was probably his first true national star turn, Cohen threatened a reporter digging into Trump's ex-wife Ivana's since-recanted allegation that Trump raped her in a fit of rage over a painful hair surgery.
But since then, Cohen's once-unwavering loyalty to his coiffed boss has wavered an awful lot.
Last August, cornered by federal prosecutors in New York, Cohen pleaded guilty to a cascade of financial crimes, the most politically important of which was covering up hush-money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump. But he also separately pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about attempts to fashion a business deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. Even before the public knew the extent of Russian interference on behalf of Trump, the candidate had—at the second 2016 presidential debate that October, for instance—felt the need to deny having any business in the country. But in fact, as the New York Times reported last year, Cohen was chasing such a deal at least as late as June 2016, after Trump had clinched the Republican presidential nomination, even though Cohen initially (falsely) told Congress he abandoned the project the previous January.
On Thursday, Buzzfeed News delivered the latest explosive development in this long-simmering saga by reporting that, according to multiple anonymous federal law-enforcement officials, Trump personally ordered Cohen to tell those lies—to deceive lawmakers about the timeline of his Russia deal—and that he and the attorney met face-to-face about the project ten times. According to the report, the president also encouraged Cohen to personally meet up with Vladimir Putin, and Cohen relayed all of these details to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who apparently already had documentary proof of these accusations in the form of additional witnesses, texts, emails, and other records.
(Update: After the Buzzfeed story was published, and after this story was published, Mueller's office responded with a rare comment, saying, “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”)
Amid a sea of obfuscation and deceit by the president and his defenders, and a bewildering array of allegations being leveled by Democrats and armchair analysts, it's as hard as ever to keep up with this Whole Russia Thing. But with newly empowered House Democrats now poised to hear Cohen's in-person testimony next month, and the Buzzfeed story implicating the president not just in a crime but in one specifically hinging on the separation of powers and deceiving lawmakers, this feels like a breakthrough—if the story is accurate, the president pretty blatantly personally committed a crime that is both prosecutable and impeachable.
Of course, a key, nagging concern for those convinced Trump and his ilk have endangered the republic with flagrant criminality and Russian collusion has been the installment of interim Attorney General Matthew Whitaker atop the Justice Department, the fear being that he would do what he could to kneecap the Mueller investigation. A new attorney general, William Barr, may be confirmed in the coming days, and concerns have been raised by top Democrats about his own independence.
But with the way Cohen keeps making news for antics both serious and sultry, we may reach a point where it does not matter all that much how powerful Mueller is or even whether he recommends impeachment. Independent of the investigation, Cohen is a festering and ugly wound for the White House. He is the highest-profile member of Trump's inner circle to completely turn on the president, and he'll likely continue to create trouble for Trump as what he knows dribbles out to the public.
Meanwhile, impeachment is growing more plausible by the day.
"It's another frontier for the president to be concerned about," Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who testified at Barr's confirmation hearing this week, told me Friday of the Buzzfeed story's implications, adding, "There's no question that suborning perjury before Congress is a federal crime. There's no question a president can be charged with such a crime."
Legal experts I spoke to contrasted this latest allegation—which, they all cautioned, would need to be publicly corroborated—with other allegations of obstruction of justice facing the president, like, say, the circumstances surrounding the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. "If they have the evidence to support it, this requires less heavy lifting in terms of constitutional issues," Turley told me of making the case against Trump.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, went further, echoing language used on Twitter late Thursday by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. "These allegations, if they're true, provide a slam-dunk case for impeachment," she told me.
"If Buzzfeed’s reporting is accurate, then we are in a similar place that led Congress in Nixon’s day to draft articles of impeachment," agreed Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University in Florida.
Regardless of how lawmakers or prosecutors act on the revelations—and how much they're borne out in court—it's hard to overstate just how nasty of a thorn Cohen has been in Trump's side. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen paid (well, promised to pay, and partly paid back) a tech consultant to rig some online polls backing Trump's candidacy when it was still in its infancy. But the real takeaway many readers couldn't resist was the nugget that Cohen also had the consultant set up a fake, ostensibly women-led Twitter group (@WomenForCohen) to praise his sex appeal and heroism online. If you wanted proof that Cohen's legal woes have reached the status of Resistance Tragicomedy, look no further than this viral tweet in response by comedian Nathan Fielder:
Obviously a Comedy Central star making fun of Michael Cohen doesn't endanger DonaldTrump's presidency in nearly the same way that Cohen allegedly lying at the president's request does. But it goes to show just how deeply engrained this man has become in the farce that is the Trump presidency. And it will only put more national attention on Cohen's testimony next month, when Congress will get airtime for what may amount to its most aggressive public talk of impeachment to date.
As Torres-Spelliscy told me in an email, "Nixon resigned rather than going through the indignity of impeachment." But if there's one thing Trump has a talent for, it's going through indignities.
After this story was published, Mueller's office disputed the Buzzfeed story. This story has been updated to reflect that.
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