It’s over. Michael Cohen’s public testimony has ended, and amidst the hours of assertions, speculation, and contention, four allegations stand out from the others. First, Cohen testified that Roger Stone told Donald Trump about the WikiLeaks document dump in advance of the Democratic Convention. Second, Cohen testified that he suspected Trump knew in advance about Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer. Third, Cohen asserted that Trump directed Cohen to make porn-star-hush-money payments and later reimbursed him while Trump was president. And fourth, Cohen claimed that Trump gave him implied directions to lie to Congress and that Trump’s personal lawyer edited his false testimony.
The first two claims grabbed headlines — taken together, they mark the first concrete, under-oath assertions that Trump was involved in any way with the various bumbling efforts of Trump-campaign officials and Trump allies to communicate with Russians or Russian assets. No, the claims are nothing like the collusion fever dreams of the hard-core conspiracy Left — and they don’t add up to anything criminal — but they would be improper and embarrassing nonetheless. Yet those first two claims are among Cohen’s least credible.
Let’s look at them in turn. The clearest expression of Cohen’s claims regarding Trump and Stone comes in his opening statement. Here’s Cohen:
In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”
Again, this is not an accusation of criminal misconduct. It’s “merely” a claim that Trump happily obtained advanced knowledge of a document dump by a known Russian asset against his (American, of course) political opponent. But this claim is contradicted and largely unsupported.
For what it’s worth, Stone has denied Cohen’s claims. But Roger Stone is a known fabulist. So, what does other evidence say? Here we should turn to the special counsel’s indictment. It does not claim that Stone himself was in contact with WikiLeaks. It does allege that Stone once claimed he was in contact with WikiLeaks but then later changed his story. Moreover, it does not claim that Stone communicated with Trump himself. It does say that Stone communicated with other members of the Trump campaign. This paragraph sums up the allegations nicely:
By in or around early August 2016, STONE was claiming both publicly and privately to have communicated with Organization 1. By in or around mid-August 2016, Organization 1 made a public statement denying direct communication with STONE. Thereafter, STONE said that his communication with Organization 1 had occurred through a person STONE described as a “mutual friend,” “go-between,” and “intermediary.” STONE also continued to communicate with members of the Trump Campaign about Organization 1 and its intended future releases.
The indictment is careful at all times to speak of Stone’s contacts with “campaign officials” or the “campaign.” For example, the indictment does speak of July communications with the campaign, but it does not indicate that Trump himself was on the line, instead claiming that Stone “informed senior Trump Campaign officials that he had information indicating [WikiLeaks] had documents whose release would be damaging to the Clinton Campaign.” (Emphasis added.)
There is an intriguing paragraph indicating that an unnamed individual directed a “senior campaign official” to reach out to Stone about “any additional releases and what other damaging information Organization 1 had regarding the Clinton Campaign,” but that’s beyond the scope of Cohen’s testimony. We still don’t know who gave the order to reach out to Stone.
The rest of the indictment fleshes out Stone’s rather sad and amateurish attempts to use others (including conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi) to reach Julian Assange — even while he bragged to the public about his allegedly direct contacts. Could Stone have called Trump and boasted about contacts he didn’t have, sharing information he learned from others? Perhaps. Phone records could help answer the question — as could the testimony of the secretary who allegedly put Stone through to Trump.
But for now, one should treat Cohen’s first big claim with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Cohen’s second claim — that he “concluded” that Trump knew in advance about Donald Junior’s infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer — is laughably unsupported and almost wholly speculative. Here’s what Cohen said:
Sometime in the summer of 2017, I read all over the media that there had been a meeting in Trump Tower in June 2016 involving Don Jr. and others from the campaign with Russians, including a representative of the Russian government, and an email setting up the meeting with the subject line, “Dirt on Hillary Clinton.” Something clicked in my mind. I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened. Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk — which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: “The meeting is all set.” I remember Mr. Trump saying, “Ok good . . . let me know.”
I’m sorry, but what are we supposed to do with that? Well, Cohen goes on to explain that Donald Junior would “never set up any meeting of any significance alone — and certainly not without checking with his father.” Cohen continued:
I also knew that nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval. So, I concluded that Don Jr. was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary with the Russian representative when he walked behind his dad’s desk that day — and that Mr. Trump knew that was the meeting Don Jr. was talking about when he said, “That’s good . . . let me know.”
This is testimony we should take with a grain of salt from anyone, let alone a known liar trying to rehabilitate his reputation in part by throwing out allegation after allegation against the president. There’s nothing actually there. There is no specific connection. It’s a supposition piled on a speculation, and it’s not worth any additional thought absent even a single piece of corroborating evidence.
When we move from speculation about collusion (Cohen, by the way, denied ever going to Prague — a key claim in the Steele Dossier), Cohen’s allegations grow far more concrete and substantiated. Let’s take, for example, his third explosive charge: that Trump personally “directed” the payment of hush money to porn stars during the campaign and personally wrote Cohen a check reimbursing him for the expenses after becoming president.
Here Cohen is on his most solid ground. He’s essentially repeating the core claims made in his allocution in federal court and in the criminal information filed against him in federal court: that he made hush-money payments on Trump’s orders, for the purpose of influencing the campaign, and was reimbursed while Trump was president by “monthly amounts of $35,000 over the course of twelve months.” Cohen brought substantiating evidence, in the form of a copy of a $35,000 check that Trump signed from his personal bank account.
The case against Trump for criminal campaign-finance violations got just a bit stronger yesterday, but it was already the strongest of the legal claims against Trump. Ultimately, while I am less bullish on Trump’s legal prospects than is my friend and colleague Andy McCarthy, I agree with one of McCarthy’s fundamental conclusions — Trump’s best defense is based on a lack of criminal intent, not on contesting the underlying facts of the hush-money scheme.
Finally, let’s deal with Cohen’s claims about his false testimony to Congress about Trump’s continuing efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. If you recall what was arguably the worst journalistic scandal of January, BuzzFeed published a story claiming that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie to Congress about his negotiations. The special counsel quickly contested BuzzFeed’s account, and the entire story was relegated to the “fake news” dustbin with other debunked reports.
But the special counsel’s statement still left a few questions. After all, its sentencing memo in Cohen’s case indicated that Cohen’s lies were in his “prepared opening statement,” and that the statement was circulated within the Trump camp prior to his testimony. That meant someone allegedly reviewed (and potentially approved) his false testimony. In other words, there was evidence that Cohen didn’t just lie all on his own.
Yesterday, Cohen fleshed out his side of the story. First, he claimed that Trump implied that he should lie, but didn’t give explicit instructions. Here’s the relevant portion of Cohen’s opening statement:
Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.
In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.
Later, he clarified which Trump attorney reviewed and edited his statement — my friend and former boss Jay Sekulow:
Cohen says his testimony on Trump Tower Moscow was changed by the president's lawyer, Jay Sekulow pic.twitter.com/jGJI6Lulro
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) February 27, 2019
I’m going to take a point of personal privilege here and state that in all the years I’ve known Jay, I’ve never, ever seen him come even close to violating the canons of legal ethics, much less knowingly attempt to provide false testimony to Congress, a court, or any other relevant tribunal. Jay isn’t just a good lawyer, he’s a shrewd man who knows that no single client is worth a reputation he’s spent a lifetime building.
What does this mean? If Jay or any other lawyer edited Cohen’s testimony to include false elements, we shouldn’t necessarily presume that the lawyers were in on the con. For example, one of Bill Clinton’s impeachment counts includes the claim that he “allowed his attorney to make false and misleading statements to a Federal judge.” Attorneys operate on the information they receive, and if Trump’s attorneys edited documents to include lies (or reviewed and approved lies), then the next question presents itself: Where did they get that false information?
This piece — meant to be reasonably brief — is already reaching almost 2,000 words, so I’m not going to deal with the multitude of other Cohen claims against Trump. Needless to say, he painted a picture of Trump that’s completely consistent with the picture that Trump paints of himself. It is interesting, however, that Cohen went out of his way to refute many of the wilder anti-Trump theories, including not just the Prague meeting but also more lurid claims about elevators, abortions, and a “love child.” The Republicans who spent hours contesting the notion that we can believe anything Cohen says will no doubt wrap their arms around those statements, at least.
The bottom line? If you’re invested in the idea that Trump was some kind of co-conspirator with Vladimir Putin, Cohen’s testimony was a profound disappointment. If you understand that Trump is a man of exceedingly poor character who — at the very least — lies continually and surrounds himself with crooks and grifters, then Cohen’s testimony merely reaffirmed a fundamental truth. If you want to know the whole story of the Trump team’s conduct in 2016, Cohen’s testimony was only marginally helpful.
No single witness will decide this case, and the real losers in yesterday’s testimony were the Americans who thought that Cohen’s testimony would somehow represent the beginning of the end of one of the most divisive national controversies of modern times. The controversies will rage on, and we now turn our attention to the next big event — the long-awaited Mueller report, rumored to be released soon. I expect it to be far more instructive and dispositive (for good and ill) than anything we heard Wednesday in Washington, D.C.