Members Only | February 28, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

It Doesn’t Take a Mastermind to Conspire with Russia

And other thoughts on Michael Cohen's testimony

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I didn’t watch the entire time Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee, but I watched a lot of it. Here are some initial thoughts.

First, the Republicans did not rebut anything Cohen said. House Republicans instead did whatever they could to discredit, demean, and smear the president’s former attorney. This is not unexpected or unreasonable. GOP legislators have incentive to protect Donald Trump. Cohen is a liar, and whatever he says must be vetted according to the facts as we have them. What’s shocking, however, is that none of them—and I mean not one—disputed the merits of Cohen’s long and remarkable testimony.

Chris Christie had it right, I think, in saying, on ABC, that: “There hasn’t been one Republican yet who’s tried to defend the president on the substance. I think that’s something that should be concerning to the White House.” Very, so very yes.

Second, the smears were ineffective. Again, Cohen is a liar. But a person convicted of nine federal felonies, to be imprisoned next month for as long as three years, is not someone with anything to gain from continuing to lie. (One of those felonies was lying to the Congress.) In other words, House Republicans, following the president’s lead, keep suggesting that Michael Cohen is lying to the Congress, even now, in order to get a reduced sentence. But that sort of logic is upside down and backward.

At this point, Cohen’s incentive is not to lie, because Robert Mueller’s team knows what’s true and what’s false. (Or, at least, it has convinced Cohen that it knows the difference between fact and fiction.) I have no doubt Cohen would like a reduced sentence, and perhaps that option is available to him, but he won’t get it by lying. His incentive is to tell the truth. (And it will continue to be, as he’s helping Mueller’s team follow additional leads.) I think most Americans get that, and if they don’t, they have a basic faith in law enforcement lending credence to Cohen’s testimony.

Third, given all this, it’s jaw-dropping how Republicans struggle for air when outside a hermetically sealed carefully constructed media climate that is Fox News. As long as they and their captive audience can presume that they know what’s true—and when it comes to the Democrats, they always already “know”—they are free to say whatever horrible thing they want to say, and their audience tends to along with them.

As long as they inhabit these safe spaces, the Republicans rarely need to worry about being challenged, shamed or held responsible for whatever horrible thing they say. Take them out of that environment, though, and everything changes, and quickly.

Take for example Mark Meadows’ trotting out an African-American woman who worked for the Trump Organization before working for the Trump administration. Lynne Patton was supposed to “prove” that Cohen was incorrect, that Donald Trump is not a racist. After all, he once hired a black woman to work for him. This was in and of itself a very racist thing to do, and freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib said so later on.

Meadows, for his part, looked genuinely wounded by Tlaib’s implication that he’s racist for having brought a black woman to rebut Cohen’s claim that the president is a racist. So wounded was Meadows, in fact, that he demanded that Tlaib’s remarks be scrubbed from the congressional record. (Happily, Chairman Elijah Cummings refused.) My point is that inside the hermetically sealed carefully constructed media climate that is Fox News, it goes without saying that hiring a black woman means you can’t be racist. Well, not in the real world—no, no, no—and Tlaib made that clear.

Because the Republicans offered no defense of the president more compelling than right-wing talk radio pap, the Democrats were free to ferret out one damning detail after another. There were so many, I can’t cover them all. Here are a few.

First is that Cohen was in Trump’s office on the day Roger Stone called to say that Wikileaks was about to dump a bunch of emails from the Democratic National Committee “that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” That means Trump knew it was going to happen before it happened on July 22, 2016. This may not be the final link between Russian hackers, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, Roger Stone and the Trump campaign, but we are getting very close to establishing that link empirically.

More importantly, we are getting closer to a full picture of what an international criminal conspiracy looks like. Remember, the president need not have knowingly “colluded” to be involved in a scheme to defraud the United States. All he needs to have done is accept something he should not have. Cohen was in the room. He said others knew about the call. I’d expect the Democrats to send more subpoenas for the purpose of finding out what Trump knew about those emails and when.

And here’s another nugget dug up by Philip Bump:

“There’s one more land mine here, and it’s a big one. In November, CNN reported that Trump’s written responses to Mueller included a denial that Stone had told him about WikiLeaks. If Cohen’s testimony and CNN’s reporting are accurate, then Trump’s response was false.”

That’s my italics, and that’s my saying Trump may have lied to Mueller.

Then there’s what Cohen said about the president’s business enterprise, and how it opens potentially new fronts in which Trump finds himself in more legal trouble.

Cohen said Trump inflated the value of his assets to get discounts on loans and insurance, both possible state and federal crimes. Cohen said Trump deflated the value of his assets for tax reasons. Again, a possible state and federal crime. Finally, Trump signed one of the checks reimbursing Cohen for hush money payments after Trump was in the White House. (His son, Donald Trump Jr. seems to have signed one, too.)

Final thought: it doesn’t take a mastermind to conspire with the Russians. All it takes is a criminal mind open to accepting things he should not accept, thus embroiling himself in an international criminal scheme. As Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein: “Truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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