The Morning Jolt

Law & the Courts

Michael Cohen Accuses President Trump of Committing a Crime

President Donald Trump’s onetime personal attorney, Michael Cohen and President Donald Trump (Lucas Jackson, Leah Millis/File Photos/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: In a New York courtroom, Michael Cohen dramatically changes the state of Donald Trump’s presidency; a Republican congressman stands accused of egregious misuse of campaign funds; and social media provide a life lesson about the consequences of obnoxiousness.

Michael Cohen Accuses President Trump of Committing a Crime

This morning, Trump fans can scoff, “Who cares about Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen?” but the answer is . . . juries do.

Manafort’s the more contained problem for President Trump. Manafort’s shady ties to foreign politicians were well known during the campaign; this is why most political observers were surprised by the hire and foresaw problems down the road. If the Trump campaign hadn’t desperately needed someone who knew how to win a floor fight at a national party’s nominating convention, Manafort probably wouldn’t have ended up in the Trump camp.

Manafort was convicted of not listing income on his tax returns from 2010 to 2014 (more than $30 million), failing to report a foreign account to the Treasury Department in 2012, and lying on loan applications from 2015 to 2017. You’ll notice that most of those crimes precede his work for the Trump campaign, and the one that came afterwards isn’t really related to the campaign. Hiring Manafort looks like bad judgment on Trump’s part, but that’s already been hashed out. At this point, your opinion on the president’s judgment is probably carved in stone and not easily altered.

But Michael Cohen just dramatically transformed Trump’s presidency by pleading guilty to five counts of tax evasion and a single count of bank fraud, and declaring in a federal courtroom that he lied on a home-equity line of credit to obtain money to pay off Stormy Daniels — “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” and that he did so “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” In other words, Cohen has now effectively testified that Trump conspired with him to commit a crime.

(For his own guilty pleas, Cohen is facing anywhere from 46 to 63 months in prison — almost four or more than five years.)

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, put it explicitly after the decision: “[Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

Justice Department guidelines declare that a sitting president can be impeached but not indicted. In other words, no, Robert Mueller and the FBI are not about to slap cuffs on the president of the United States and drag him away.

Mueller’s team and the Justice Department are no doubt gathering all of the evidence that Trump knew and/or directed Cohen to commit fraud. (Remember, Cohen recorded his conversations with Trump. I wonder if Trump could mount a fairly plausible defense that he doesn’t really listen or pay attention when other people are talking to him. I suspect there are quite a few cabinet officials, members of Congress, and briefers who would offer testimony to support that claim.) At some point, Mueller and the DOJ will drop that pile of evidence in the lap of the U.S. House of Representatives and say, “Here, you guys go decide whether this warrants impeachment.”

It’s probably safe to predict that most Democrats will say, “Heck yes,” and most Republicans will say, “Heck no.”

It’s fun to contemplate an alternate history in which John Edwards won the Democratic nomination and presidency in 2008, and that sometime during his presidency, his affair and child with Rielle Hunter were revealed and the subsequent investigation found that Edwards used nearly $1 million in campaign funds to cover up the affair, paying for chartered airfare, luxury hotels, and rental for a house in Santa Barbara, Calif., to keep the mistress and child hidden from the public. (Remember, most of this actually happened, except that the Edwards campaign crashed and burned early in that cycle. For what it’s worth, years later a jury deadlocked on five felony counts and voted to acquit him on one charge of fraudulently using campaign donations.)

It’s easy to suspect most Republicans would support Edwards’s impeachment and most Democrats would oppose it, reflecting a principled belief that fraudulently obtaining funds to hide an illicit affair is a serious crime that requires impeachment from office, but only when the other party does it.

Here’s the psychological barrier that impeachment advocates have to overcome: This country has never successfully impeached a president before. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate; Richard Nixon resigned before the impeachment vote. If you want to remove an American president from office, the accusation had better have ironclad evidence — audio of Trump saying something like, “Lie on the bank forms if you have to” — and the crime had better be serious. It’s not yet clear whether a majority of Americans will consider urging an associate to lie on a loan application to be a sufficient threshold for impeachment. Back in 1998, Americans did not consider Bill Clinton lying under oath and urging others to do the same to be sufficient reason to remove him from office.

Separately, this whole mess is a sordid illustration of how a lot of the loudly touted “loyalty” in Trump-world is illusory. Like many other traits, loyalty might be one of those qualities where if you have it, you don’t need to profess it and remind others that you have it; you’ve sufficiently demonstrated it through your past actions.

Remember, back in September of last year, Cohen told Vanity Fair, “I’m the guy who stops the leaks. I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”

And now Davis is declaring, on behalf of Cohen, “I know that Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from a man that he considers to be both corrupt and a dangerous person in the oval office . . . under no circumstances would he accept a pardon from Mr. Trump.”

Don’t pay attention to what these people say; they’ll say whatever it takes to get through the day. Pay attention to what they do.

Campaign Funds Are Not Meant to Be ‘Help-the-Elected-Official-Live-Lavishly Funds’

Meanwhile, out in California, further evidence that many self-professed fiscal conservatives elected to office eventually come to believe that they’re entitled to spend other people’s money on themselves lavishly . . .

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) and his wife, Margaret, were indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday on charges they used $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use and filed false campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission to mask their actions.

The 48-page indictment details lavish spending from 2009 to 2016, including family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, home utilities, school tuition for their children, video games and even dental work. The San Diego Union-Tribune first identified the improper spending, triggering a federal investigation by the Justice Department.

To conceal the personal expenditures, family dental bills were listed as a charitable contribution to “Smiles for Life,” the government alleges. Tickets for the family to see “Riverdance” at the San Diego Civic Theatre became “San Diego Civic Center for Republican Women Federated/Fundraising,” according to the indictment. Clothing purchases at a golf course were falsely reported as golf “balls for the wounded warriors.” SeaWorld tickets worth more $250 were called an “educational tour.”


Why You’re Probably Not as Outrageously Funny and Daring as You Think

A recent life lesson from the world of social media. A young woman was accepted for an internship at NASA and posted the news with great excitement, including the F-bomb. An older Twitter user gently reminded the youngster, “Language.” The youngster then responded with vulgar insults.

That older Twitter user turned out to be Homer Hickam, who is on the National Space Council that oversees NASA. The young woman found her offer of an internship rescinded; Hickam wrote, “I had nothing to do with nor could I since I do not hire and fire at the agency or have any say on employment whatsoever.” Apparently other officials at NASA witnessed the exchange and found the young woman’s behavior unacceptable.

But the story has something of a happy, or happier, ending. Hickam writes:

She reached out to me with an unnecessary apology which I heartily accepted and returned with my own. After talking to her and looking at her resume’, I am certain she deserves a position in the aerospace industry and I’m doing all I can to secure her one that will be better than she lost.

I have also talked to the folks that had to do with her internship and made absolutely certain that there will be no black mark on her record. They have told me she may reapply.

I’m not so sure that the apology was unnecessary, but we’ve all said things we regret and been rude and disrespectful at the wrong time. We’re well-served by a society that leaves room for regret, forgiveness, and making amends.

There is a persona that many of us enjoy and perhaps secretly wish we could be, exhibited in Howard Stern or Gordon Ramsey in real life, Deadpool or Cartman from South Park in fiction. Shameless, gleefully obnoxious, snide and insulting, a volcano of bile ready to erupt without warning. A personality that refuses to suffer any fool gladly — and almost everyone else fits the category of fool — and tearing through society’s rules for how we speak and treat each other like a tornado through substandard construction. It is the person who demonstrates, with every word and gesture, that they respect no one and nothing at all.

Those characters are fun to watch, but not to actually encounter or live with, and they’re almost impossible as co-workers, family members, or partners. In most corners of real life, that persona alienates and drives people away, unless it’s carefully calibrated and managed. The era of social media has led many to want to cultivate their own edgy, in-your-face, no-holds-barred personas . . . and surprise, surprise, it doesn’t work for most people.

ADDENDA: A genuinely funny tweet from the president this morning, making a rare use of comic understatement: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

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