Because attorney-client privilege is apparently no longer a thing, Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer, is on Capitol Hill this week testifying against his old employer. The media tells us that his testimony is like a carpet bomb on the Trump Administration, full of explosive and damning revelations that will surely spell doom for the President. Something closer to the opposite is the case, I think.
In Cohen's prepared remarks, he makes a series of allegations that have nothing at all to do with criminal conduct. For instance, he labels Trump a racist and accuses him of calling black people "stupid." He also paints Trump as manipulative and conceited, claiming that Trump once organized the purchase of his own portrait so that it would be the highest-priced item at the auction. That particular anecdote strikes me as entirely believable, but it has no relevance to anything and has no place in a congressional hearing.
Cohen makes the President seem silly, self-involved, dishonest, and perhaps morally repugnant, but even if all of that is true, it doesn't make him a criminal. And besides, Cohen is an open and admitted liar who is going to jail for his deceptions. He is clearly willing to invent or embellish stories if he thinks he will be benefited by the ruse. There is no way that any thinking person can take his word as gospel.
To be fair to the Democrat operative who wrote Cohen's statement, it did include a few more serious charges. But even those bits hardly make an impact upon closer inspection. In one of his headlining claims, Cohen says that Trump knew about the Wikileaks dump of DNC emails ahead of time:
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.”
Cohen does not allege that Trump orchestrated the hacking of the DNC. He does not indicate that Trump had any hand in the acquisition or publication of the material. He says only that Trump heard a rumor about it a few days ahead of time. We are supposed to be morally shocked that Trump, the great villain, was pleased by the news.
But why wouldn't he be pleased? Isn't any politician pleased to find out that their opponent is about to suffer public embarrassment? Was Trump supposed to get on the horn with the Clinton camp and help them develop a strategy for dealing with the PR crisis? I suppose that would have been sportmanslike, but sportsmen don't win elected office in modern America.
If that revelation doesn't damage Trump, Cohen throws another against the wall:
As Exhibit 5 to my testimony shows, I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1, 2017 – when he was President of the United States – pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me — the word used by Mr. Trump’s TV lawyer — for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf. This $35,000 check was one of 11 check installments that was paid throughout the year – while he was President.
The President of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws. You can find the details of that scheme, directed by Mr. Trump, in the pleadings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
So picture this scene – in February 2017, one month into his presidency, I’m visiting President Trump in the Oval Office for the first time. It’s truly awe-inspiring, he’s showing me around and pointing to different paintings, and he says to me something to the effect of … Don’t worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York and it takes a while for that to get through the White House system. As he promised, I received the first check for the reimbursement of $70,000 not long thereafter.
So, we have a check from Trump to Cohen in the amount of $35,000. This, of course, proves nothing about what the check was meant for. It is not very surprising to discover that a rich man gave his lawyer a lot of money. That's what rich men do. This "evidence" is evidence only that Trump paid his lawyer for... something.
Finally, Cohen tries dipping into the Russia well:
To be clear: Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.
And so I lied about it, too – because Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew were false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie. And he made it clear to me because his personal attorneys reviewed my statement before I gave it to Congress.
This story is meant to implicate Trump, but it's actually the first of three instances when Cohen accidentally provides exonerating information. Cohen admits that Trump "never expected to win the election." He repeats this assertion multiple times throughout his opening testimony. This is an extremely important detail, and it works in the President's favor.
If Trump did not expect to win and was not planning to win, then he cannot be accused of trying to leverage the presidency for financial gain. Hillary Clinton used the office of the Secretary of State to enrich herself through the Clinton Foundation. Trump could not have had a similar plan in mind if he never even planned to be president at all. Importantly, Trump's lack of intention to win the election could also mitigate his liability under campaign finance laws. If his hush payments to Daniels did occur, it would be harder to argue that they constitute a violation of campaign finance laws if, per Cohen, Trump wasn't trying to win the election in the first place.
Now, if Trump did just run for president to heighten his public profile, that would certainly make him a rank self-promoter and probably an ideological fraud, but it insulates him from far more serious charges. And, we should note, it also puts him in the same class as most everyone who has run for the office over the past 50 years at least.
Elsewhere, Cohen clears Trump of an obstruction and perjury charge:
Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.
He claims that Trump used body language and other hints to imply that he should lie to Congress. But nobody has ever been brought up on obstruction for facial expressions.
Finally, in what should be the headline moment of the entire hearing, Cohen shoots down the collusion narrative:
Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear.
He does have his "suspicions," he says, but he has no knowledge or evidence of Trump colluding with the Russians. If such a thing was happening, it seems that Cohen would certainly have known about it. His lack of direct knowledge is very strong evidence in Trump's favor. In this case, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.
Reflect on this for a moment: the Democrats have their worst enemy's lawyer in their pocket, the guy who has spent a decade putting fires out for Trump, the guy who knows where the bodies are buried. Whatever dirt there might be, whatever skeletons lay hidden in the closet, this is the one man who will know about it. And this hearing — which exonerates Trump more than it implicates him — is the best they can do with that secret weapon. That is quite incredible, when you think about it. Incredibly favorable to Trump, that is.
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