AP NEWS

Cohen’s testimony can only dishearten

March 2, 2019

Much of the cross-examination of Michael Cohen while he was testifying before a House committee Wednesday were efforts to discredit the witness — not to substantively challenge the charges made against Donald Trump.

The nation would have been better served with the latter. Serious allegations were made that demand answers. The public needed these questioners to move beyond partisan posturing, much of it for the sole purpose of protecting the president. Some of the most serious questioning came from freshman Democratic representatives, including Alexandria Octavia-Cortez of New York.

Attacking the messenger was, of course, the obvious play, given Cohen’s admission of lying to Congress earlier. He also pleaded guilty to other charges, resulting in a three-year prison sentence.

Cohen is a liar and a scammer himself? OK, but in the employ of a boss who, if Cohen’s testimony is accurate, actively directed him to use those skills to protect Trump and his brand.

Much can be said about the Trump-Cohen relationship, but that each didn’t intimately know who and what the other was isn’t credibly among them.

And when Cohen’s testimony is weighed against what is already known from court documents and journalistic investigations, and against Trump’s own long record of mendacity, what we’re left with are further indications that the president committed felonies.

And even if these don’t result in criminal prosecution — because the Justice Department doesn’t cause sitting presidents to be indicted and because of the complexities of the law in proving intent — Cohen’s testimony was disheartening. It was disheartening in particular to anyone hoping that the ballot box and not impeachment would be the tool brought to bear in this process.

Those hopes just became dimmer, and might dim even more, after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is released, if, indeed, Attorney General William Barr allows a public examination.

Americans have become inured by the drip-drip of revelations of alleged Trump and Trump campaign misconduct for a few years now. Even so, this testimony was shocking. There is simply no historical equivalent of which we’re aware of someone in a president’s inner circle calling the president a racist, con man and a cheat in congressional testimony. The closest we come is John Dean in the Watergate years, and it still took the Watergate tapes to sink President Richard Nixon.

The fact is that much of what we knew before Cohen’s testimony does little to contradict the former Trump fixer. Simply, already facing a prison sentence and knowing that lying again to Congress could lengthen his stay, why would he lie?

Among the criminal acts Cohen alleges:

Cohen said he was in Trump’s office when he put Roger Stone on speakerphone during the campaign. Stone told Trump he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that a data dump was imminent. Trump’s alleged reply: “Wouldn’t that be great.” This is serious if active collusion is proven.

The president has reportedly told the special counsel that he did not talk to Stone about the WikiLeaks plans or about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised to deliver dirt on Clinton. Others in the Trump orbit have already been indicted for lying to the FBI or the special counsel. And the fact that no usable dirt from a foreign power was delivered is not mitigating if there was a conspiracy to get such information.

Cohen said Trump directed him to pay hush money to a porn star because of a previous affair — and produced a check from the Trump organization to partially reimburse him. This violates campaign finance law. Cohen produced other documents revealing that Trump inflated assets when that served him and diminished them for tax purposes.

But perhaps the most serious allegation is that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. Cohen said this wasn’t a direct ask. It came in the form of mobster-speak in which he looked Cohen in the eye and said there was no effort underway to get a Trump Tower in Moscow, though both clearly knew there was. Plausible deniability, in other words. Prosecutors need not prove a direct ask if the actions amount to the same.

This was troubling testimony that will not go down in the history books as either one of the nation’s or the presidency’s finer moments. Yes, it is testimony from a tarnished witness, but buttressed by what we already know, it is testimony that points to a tarnished presidency. And more crisis ahead. Cohen’s testimony opens other lines of inquiry.