Earlier today, I appeared on America's Newsroom to react to the breaking news that Michael Cohen, a longtime confidante and personal attorney to Donald Trump, had reached a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in which he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. Much of the early coverage of this development centered on the question of what it might mean for Mueller's overall case, and by extension, for the president. My analysis -- which wasn't exactly earth-shattering -- is that we frankly have no idea. Here's my brief commentary, followed by some additional thoughts:
(1) Regarding my 'deck of cards' metaphor, it's undoubtedly the case that Mueller is holding his hand very close to the vest. What any individual twist or turn might mean in the larger scope of the investigation is known to very few people. It's absolutely fair to speculate whether that hand is strong or weak -- and to that point, Alan Dershowitz just explained why he suspects it's weak. Is Mueller lining up the goods on a sweeping collusion and obstruction case, or is he nibbling at the edges by cornering people with process crimes because he doesn't have much of substance as it relates to the core mandate of the Russia probe? I'll repeat: We don't know yet. And yes, while this plea agreement with Mueller is interesting, don't forget that Cohen entered guilty pleas on eight federal crimes months ago (Mueller handed off those charges to another prosecutor), furnishing the special counsel's office with ample leverage. That's another piece of context that highlights how little the chattering class knows about the bigger picture.
(2) As I alluded to in my comments, the president this morning attacked Cohen as a weak and dumb person (under questioning, Trump said he only employed Cohen for so long because of a vague "favor" from Cohen in the past). He directly contrasted his ex-lawyer's alleged lack of fortitude with the approach of unspecified other individuals, essentially saying, "unlike some people, Cohen is willing to lie about me to save his own skin." The unstated but quite obvious reference there was to Paul Manafort, whose Mueller plea deal just blew up. Former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy thinks Manafort could be jockeying for a presidential pardon by casting himself as resisting the immense pressure to tell the special counsel's office what they want to hear about Trump:
For their part, Manafort and his lawyers are clearly preparing to argue that Manafort was honest but that Mueller’s rabidly anti-Trump prosecutors did not like what he had to say — i.e., he would not implicate the president in misconduct. This would echo a theme posited by Judge T. S. Ellis in Manafort’s Virginia trial: Mueller aggressively pursued Manafort on charges that had nothing to do with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in order to squeeze Manafort into singing, or even “composing,” as a witness against the president...Many will thus detect a play for a pardon in Manafort’s alleged breaching of the plea agreement, coupled with his public stance that, far from lying, he has been resisting Mueller’s heavy-handed attempt to make him lie.
Let me just add that if there is any evidence that Trump would issue a pardon in order to protect himself or his family, that would constitute a gross abuse of power. That's jumping several steps ahead, I realize, but I figured I ought to set that baseline of standards and expectations.
(3) As for the president's point that the prospective business deal in Moscow that Cohen was exploring on behalf of the Trump Organization well into 2016 (Cohen lied to Congress about the timeline and other details) never actually went through, that's interesting and relevant to some extent, but it's not exactly exculpatory, reassuring or above-board either:
Let's just be clear -- there is now evidence that Trump was pursuing a substantial personal business relationship with our chief geopolitical foe long after he wrapped up the GOP nomination.— David French (@DavidAFrench) November 29, 2018
Regardless of the legality of his actions, this is not acceptable.
It's also rather unhelpful that the president's longtime lawyer lied under oath about the potential project, which just darkens the shadow. That said, the scuttled deal (and Cohen's dishonesty about it) is not even close to prima facie evidence of a grand criminal conspiracy connected to influencing the 2016 US election. It may not be remotely relevant at all, in fact -- but it could be. See the aforementioned deck of cards, the contents of which are largely a mystery. I'll leave you with this possibly-ominous thought from a CNN analyst, which does have a ring of truth to it:
CNN’s @JeffreyToobin on Cohen's guilty plea: “It is not a coincidence … that all of this is happening after the President has submitted those statements [to Mueller] under oath.” https://t.co/S8PXVXQtNZ pic.twitter.com/cre2ubVmql— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) November 29, 2018
Mueller got Trump on the record, in writing, and then started dropping bombs about allegedly provable lies from Manafort and Cohen. Does Mueller now have reason to believe Trump lied, too -- with ammo to back it up? As ever, stay tuned.