That rumbling in the distance you hear is the avalanche of bad news about the Russia investigation heading towards Donald Trump. The first ton of dirt came from the President’s former bagman and fixer, Michael Cohen, who admitted in court today that he’d lied to Congress in statements about Russia. The really devastating aspect of this for President Trump is that Cohen seems to be telling Mueller’s team exactly what these lies were meant to conceal. In recent days, Cohen had been privately talking about moving from ‘fixer to flipper’. He even sent a video on the subject to friends. In turning on his old boss, cleaning up his Congressional testimony would be a necessary step.
Last year, Cohen wrote to the House and Senate intelligence committees about his effort to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow when he was Trump’s personal lawyer and a vice-president of the Trump Organization. He said in his letter that this ended in failure, in January 2016, because he could never get any kind of response from anyone in the Russian government. He also said he had not ‘extensively’ discussed the project with anyone else in the Trump Organization.
Mueller’s team say this was ‘false and misleading’ – meant to give the impression that Trump Tower Moscow had been abandoned before the Iowa caucuses and the start of the 2016 race. In a letter to today’s court hearing the Special Counsel’s office say they have emails showing that Cohen was in touch with aides to President Putin even as Trump was locking up the nomination. And Cohen was planning to go to Russia in the summer of 2016, just before the Cleveland convention where Trump was confirmed as the Republican nominee.
Trump is referred to as ‘Individual 1’ in the Special Counsel’s court filing. ‘COHEN made the false statements to minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1…COHEN discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1 on more than the three occasions…COHEN agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of Individual l’s possible travel to Russia…COHEN asked Individual 1 about the possibility of Individual 1 traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia.’
There are two ways to look at Cohen’s secret play for a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. One is to view this as a member of Trump’s inner circle trying to make money for himself from his connection to the surprise front-runner in the Republican race. The other interpretation is that Cohen’s approaches were authorized by Trump, back-channel negotiations with the Russian President with who-knows-what on the table – part of Russian efforts to buy Trump’s loyalty, ‘Individual 1’ only too willing to make a deal. At the very least, it appears Trump was not telling the truth when he said at a news conference in January of 2017, just after taking office, that he had ‘stayed away’ from business deals in Russia.
Cohen’s admission in court today covers only a small part of his evidence to Congress: the statements he gave on Trump Tower Moscow. Does that mean he stands by the rest of his testimony? Cohen said then: ‘Given my own proximity to the President of the United States as a candidate, let me also say that I never saw anything – not a hint of anything – that demonstrated his involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.’ The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Burr, had something to say about that back in August, when Cohen admitted charges of tax evasion and campaign finance violations. Burr said his staff were ‘re-engaging’ with Cohen’s legal team because of reports that Cohen had had prior knowledge of a meeting at Trump Tower between Don Jr. and a lawyer from the Kremlin offering ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton.
In his letter to Congress, Cohen also said: ‘I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack or interfere with the election.’ The famous – or notorious – ‘dossier’ by a former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, gave Cohen a starring role in that interference, saying he had travelled to Prague in the summer of 2016 to meet Russian agents, pay-off hackers, and formulate a cover-up plan with the Kremlin. Cohen denied this in his testimony: ‘I have never in my life been to Prague or to anywhere in the Czech Republic.’ Perhaps these denials are correct. Or perhaps Mueller is working methodically through Cohen’s testimony, one issue at a time. There is a third possibility: that Cohen is continuing to lie about Prague. If so, he should take heed from Paul Manafort, who seems to have thought he could trick the Special Counsel. Manafort’s plea agreement was torn to shreds. He now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
After Cohen’s admissions, developments in the Manafort case are the second ton of dirt to land on the President. It has emerged that Manafort, while ostensibly co-operating with Mueller, was also allowing his lawyers to brief Trump’s legal team on what was happening. This was purportedly under an agreement that allows joint defendants or people who might become defendants to share information. But this practice usually does not continue after one of the accused turns state’s evidence. Manafort would have been able to give details of the government’s strategy to Trump. Cockburn assumes this would have infuriated Mueller. (And, another point, surely the President cannot wish to be seen as a joint defendant?)
News of this was followed by Trump signaling publicly that he might pardon Manafort. He told the New York Post, ‘I wouldn’t take it off the table.’ If any sliver of a hint of a pardon emerges from the secret back-and-forth between Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s, it could form the basis for a charge of obstruction of justice. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee — not daring to utter aloud the I word — must be salivating. But the President is a man who likes to double down. He is also, seemingly, hinting at pardons for two other friends and supporters who are under investigation, Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone. They have both, so far, resisted pressure to ‘flip’. Trump told the Post; ‘It’s actually very brave. I’m telling you this is McCarthyism. We are in the McCarthy era. This is no better than McCarthy.’
Speaking of Stone, his public dispute with the left-wing radio host Randy Credico continues full-throttle. Stone says Credico was his source for a tip that WikiLeaks was about to dump damaging emails from the Clinton campaign during the presidential election. Credico denies it. The precise timings of their original exchanges are crucial. Stone sends Cockburn what he says is a text from Credico: ‘At any rate I’m on so much heavy medication, I don’t remember any of the dates from last year.’
Stone’s photo of this text seems to be of something rescued from his shredder. Still, Credico tells Cockburn. ‘I probably said that…around the time of him telling me not to talk to the FBI.’ He goes on: ‘There’s a lot coming out…the special prosecutor has that one, anything in 2017 when he [Stone] was trying to change my testimony, he wanted me to take the Fifth. He’s trying to invent me as a backchannel, he tried to get Corsi to frame me and Corsi wasn’t going along with it.’
Credico has this warning for Stone. ‘The special prosecutor has got everything, it’s obvious they have all the texts. It’s like an episode of Columbo – they already know who did it. You can fool a reporter, but you can’t fool these guys. Of course he’s going to make me look like a wacko.’
Stone passed on Credico’s text after Credico seemed to send messages to @realDonaldTrump mentioning Stone, and not in a good way. Cockburn can’t vouch for their authenticity, but these appear to be Twitter messages from Credico to Trump:
‘What Roger Stone confided in me about your depraved sexual behavior and your venal economic crimes is enough to put you in prison with an orange jumpsuit to match your hair for the rest of your fat life.’
And: ‘Stone has information about you going back 37 years and your sexual perversion and economic crimes. Stay tuned fatso.’
And: ‘Stone has told me stuff about you that leads me to believe that everything in the Steele dossier is true, in particular the golden showers.’
Roger Stone, Donald Trump, Randy Credico, Jerome Corsi. It really is Watergate but with stupid-even more awful-people. pic.twitter.com/V6a8pQcFUk
— Claude Taylor (@TrueFactsStated) November 29, 2018
Stone tells Cockburn: ‘I have never discussed the President’s sex life with Randy Credico, other than the President’s well known admiration for beautiful women.’
Such exchanges are entertaining, but they are not the main point. That is whether Trump, through Stone or others, had a backchannel to WikiLeaks, which was publishing emails hacked by the Russians. As the distinguished Harvard lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, has said, merely getting information from the Russians would not be a crime. But telling them where to hack and how to get the information out…that might be. And seeking a bribe, a Trump Tower in Moscow or anything else…that almost certainly would be. The bad news for Trump is that while Stone, Corsi and Manafort are all holding the line, Cohen is not. So what does Michael Cohen know?