It's easy to forget, amid Donald Trump's never-ending Twitter tantrums over topics as varied as the sprawling Russia investigation and the circumstances of Roseanne Barr's firing, that his longtime personal attorney and consigliere Michael Cohen is in deep shit. But on Wednesday, the federal investigation into Cohen's finances, which broke into the open when his office and home were raided early last month, took another small but potentially significant step forward.
As the New York Times reported, Judge Kimba Wood expressed frustration at the pace of Cohen's attorneys as they have been vetting, under supervision of an independent "special master," the hundreds of thousands of his documents seized in the raids for potential claims of executive privilege. Such claims would be a nifty way for Cohen or Trump's lawyers to argue a particularly explosive letter or email or text message might be out of bounds because Trump is president—chief executives can't be worried about affairs of state spilling into the open. Still, Wood urged them to hurry up already, warning that if they didn't finish within two weeks, she might let federal prosecutors take over.
When the lawyer's digs were first raided, it seemed fairly clear that at least part of the feds' interest was Cohen's role in paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a model named Karen MacDougal, who both had alleged affairs with Trump and then been paid for their silence before the 2016 election. But we now know that Cohen made millions dangling access to Trump after his stunning election win, reportedly bragged about his ties to the Russian mob in the past, and erected (as the Times dubbed it) a "shadowy business empire" that appeared to have at least some trademarks of a potential money-laundering scheme.
Taken in tandem with the fact that an associate of Cohen's has already agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, the feds don't seem likely to be short on material with which to construct a possible case here. That's bad news for Cohen, obviously, but it's also very bad news for Trump, who seems have relied on Cohen more than anyone else on Earth to bury his darkest secrets before the election.
As the Washington Post reported, almost 300,000 Cohen files had already been passed to the feds investigating him by Tuesday, and over a million more were expected Wednesday. Among them, perhaps most tantalizingly: "the contents of a shredding machine," and, as CNN reported last month, recordings of conversations between Cohen and an attorney who previously represented Daniels. (That has naturally led to speculation Cohen's files might even include conversations with the now-president.) Meanwhile, only 250 or so items had been flagged by Cohen's lawyers as too sensitive with respect to the chief executive for the prosecutors to get their hands on.
If Cohen is charged, it's anyone's guess how Trump will react. He's complained that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing him wrong for not taking control over the sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and would almost certainly publicly complain that his lawyer was getting railroaded.
But Trump would also have to be leery that Cohen might turn government witness. In addition to his own pet projects, like reportedly soliciting cash straight-up from the Qatari government after Trump won, Cohen has played a starring role in Trump's myriad attempts to invest in shady locales abroad, among them a since-abandoned Trump Tower project in Russia Cohen was working on as late as May 2016. As David Graham noted at the Atlantic, Cohen has never really played the regular part of "lawyer" so much as he has been a sort of "fixer" or utility player who springs into action whenever Trump gets into trouble, personal or financial or both. If there were a single person you might take down with a criminal case—or the threat of serious prison time—in hopes of getting dirt on Trump, it would be Cohen. And Cohen's former business partner in the strange, profitable world of taxi medallions, Evgeny “Gene” Freidman, copped a plea last week. How much longer will Cohen's personal fondness for the president, which is legendary, be sufficient to ward off his own fears about personal and financial ruin?
There is still a lot we don't know about the Cohen case, and he has not been charged with, much less convicted of, any crime. But the case itself is laying bare, in a way Robert Mueller's investigation in Washington has not (so far), how Trump gets his way. Mountains of opposition research are now available to anyone—Republican or Democrat—to throw at the guy who promised to "drain the swamp," before changing his mind and diving in deep. Cohen, and it's fair to say Trump, has a history of paying women to stay silent about sex. Cohen, and it's fair to say Trump, has a history of doing business with people tied to organized crime. Cohen, and it's fair to say Trump, is willing to violate norms and possibly even the law to enrich himself by way of leveraging his power.
That this conduct might not be criminal doesn't make it excusable, and the public does have a way to hold Trump accountable. Democrats didn't exactly prove themselves adept at capitalizing on the mountains of fodder for attacks on Trump last go-around, but maybe that had as much to do with the candidate they ran as any tactical shortcomings. Of course, the prognosis for a wholesale assault on Trump's presidency is still weak: Even if Democrats win the midterms in the fall, their own leaders in Congress are reluctant to run on impeaching Trump outright. But the Democratic left, from the MoveOn.org crowd planning a response to a possible Mueller firing to billionaire impeachment advocates like Tom Steyer, are chomping at the bit. They want blood, and the drip drip of the investigation into Michael Cohen looks more and more like one sure way for them to have it.
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