On late Tuesday night, Michael Cohen’s written congressional testimony became publicly available. On the legal front, Cohen’s statement adds significantly to President Donald Trump’s legal exposure on several fronts including federal and state tax crimes for disguised hush money payments, campaign finance law crimes for those same hush money payments, and telling or encouraging Cohen to lie to Congress. There is also some evidence that is helpful to Trump in the sense that Cohen states the he has no knowledge of “direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia” (though Cohen adds, “But, I have my suspicions.”). It will be important to know what “indirect”, or circumstantial, evidence Cohen may have in that regard. But bracketing all of those issues, the biggest bombshell is this one: Cohen’s statement that Roger Stone informed candidate Trump in advance of Wikileaks’ release of the stolen emails (and Trump’s responding with words of encouragement). Cohen states that his evidence is based on a conversation on speaker phone between Trump and Stone in Cohen’s presence.
Here are the key passages:
“He was a presidential candidate who knew that Roger Stone was talking with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks drop of Democratic National Committee emails.”
Mr. Trump knew from Roger Stone in advance about the WikiLeaks drop of emails.
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.”
Former White House Counsel Bob Bauer and I have written about the highly significant legal implications of Stone’s coordinating with Wikileaks, based off the scheme revealed in the Special Counsel’s draft Statement of Offense for Stone’s associate Jerome Corsi. We wrote, “the draft court document supplies additional reason to believe that Bob Mueller can charge Trump Campaign associates and the campaign itself for violations of federal campaign finance law either directly under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) or as part of a conspiracy to defraud the United States by obstructing the capacity of the Federal Election Commission to enforce the FECA.” Consistent with our analysis, another top election law expert Paul Seamus Ryan also wrote an important article following Stone’s indictment, “Roger Stone Indictment Implicates Trump Campaign in Election Law Violations.”
It is clear from the Special Counsel documents that Stone was acting on behalf of the campaign, and several of the Special Counsel’s documents (including the indictment of the alleged Russian military intelligence officials) conspicuously include references to Stone’s being in direct communication with senior Trump campaign officials and the candidate himself at the relevant times.
Cohen’s testimony helps tie Trump directly to Stone’s scheme with Wikileaks. That is likely a reason that the President, in his written response to Mueller’s questions, reportedly denied that he spoke with Stone about WikiLeaks. And, yes, that potentially implicates Trump in yet another crime of making false statements to federal prosecutors.
But my chief concern here is not that false statement — though it would indicate Trump’s and Stone’s awareness that the underlying conduct was illicit and that they tried to hide it even at risk of perjury. My chief concern is the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Americans corruptly or criminally assisted the Russians’ efforts. The question whether Trump or his campaign “colluded” with Russia, should be asked another way as well. As Asha Rangappa and I recently wrote (in a piece titled, “Stop Using the Word “Collusion”—How to Frame the Critical Question at the Heart of Trump-Russia”), a key question of law and policy is whether there is “any direct or circumstantial evidence of Trump campaign associates’ coordinating with, cooperating with, encouraging, or giving support to Wikileaks’ election-related activities.” Rangappa and I explain the significance of the question is because the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that the Kremlin used Wikileaks as an arm of its election interference operation, a fact that became apparent to anyone reading the news during the election itself.
Cohen’s oral testimony before Congress may now spell out more of the details in Trump’s connections to Roger Stone. For now, it is worth recalling that the Special Counsel told a federal court, “The information [Cohen] has provided has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the SCO’s ongoing investigation.”
Photo credit Don Emmert and Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)