It wasn’t much. The date was Sunday, June 18, 1972, the byline was Alfred E. Lewis, Washington Post Staff Writer, and the story was this:
Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.
Three of the men were native-born Cubans and another was said to have trained Cuban exiles for guerrilla activity after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.
There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.
A very young Bob Woodward would cover the arraignment. Something was odd about this. A very young Carl Bernstein would soon join him in looking into this. There was no immediate explanation for what had happened, but finally, there was an explanation, and on Friday, August 9, 1974, President Nixon resigned from office. That first little news story wasn’t much. But it was everything.
The date is Thursday, November 29, 2018, and the byline is Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky and Rosalind Helderman, all Washington Post staff writers again, and the story is this:
President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday in New York to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued at the same time he was running for president.
In a nine-page filing, prosecutors laid out a litany of lies that Cohen admitted he told to congressional lawmakers about the Moscow project – an attempt, Cohen said, to minimize links between the proposed development and Trump as his presidential bid was well underway.
Cohen’s guilty plea – his second in four months – is the latest development in a wide-ranging investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Activity in that probe has intensified this week, as one planned guilty plea was derailed, and, separately, prosecutors accused Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying to them since he pleaded guilty.
That was it. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty, again, to something else, but he’s nobody in particular – he’s not part of government and long gone from the Trump organization. This little news story should not have been much, but maybe it is everything. Jeffrey Toobin thinks so:
The question at the heart of the Russia investigation has always been one of motive. Why has Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as the President, been so solicitous of Russia and of its leader, Vladimir Putin? Why did Trump praise Putin so obsequiously during the campaign? Why did the Trump campaign steer the Republican Party platform in a more pro-Russia direction? Why does Trump still refuse to criticize Putin and Russian actions around the world?
The guilty plea that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, entered on Thursday morning, at a federal-court hearing in Manhattan, goes a long way toward answering those questions.
And the answer is fairly simple:
Once again, with Trump, it seems, the answer comes down to money. In September of last year, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Cohen said that he made efforts on Trump’s behalf to negotiate the building of a Trump Tower in Moscow but that those efforts had ended in failure, in January of 2016, and were rarely discussed again. But, on Thursday, Cohen admitted that this had been a lie; he acknowledged that he had continued to negotiate on Trump’s behalf well into 2016, until at least June, when Trump was already the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee.
In other words, while Trump was running for President, his company was simultaneously (and secretly) negotiating with Russia to build a tower. Since Putin and his government effectively control all such developments in Russia, they held the fate of the project in their hands… Trump had dreamed of building in Moscow for decades, and had travelled to the Russian capital as far back as the nineteen-eighties to try to make it happen.
That’s serious leverage over Trump, and there’s this:
The timing of Cohen’s guilty plea is significant. It seems that the prosecution team, led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, delayed Cohen’s admission of guilt until after Trump and his legal team had submitted the President’s written answers to Mueller’s questions, which he did earlier this month. Mueller surely asked Trump about the Moscow negotiation, and the President’s answers were likely locked in before he and his lawyers could factor in Cohen’s admissions. If those answers were to conflict with Cohen’s latest version of events, it would potentially be a matter of great peril for the President. Mueller’s prosecutors made it clear in court on Thursday that they believe that Cohen is now telling the truth.
The charging document from the guilty plea, prepared by the Mueller office, shows that Cohen’s account is corroborated by multiple contemporaneous e-mails between him and an “Individual 2,” who is likely Felix Sater, a frequent Trump business associate.
In short, Trump committed to his answers. He had Paul Manafort on the inside – admitting guilt of all sorts and pretending to cooperate with Mueller, for less jail time, but at the same time feeding all the inside skinny on what he’d told Mueller back to Trump’s team, so their answers to all questions would match his, and all the time knowing that Trump would pardon him. They had fooled Mueller. Then Mueller fooled them back. He cancelled all deals with Manafort. He had Cohen. He’s had a ton of evidence supporting Cohen’s answers to all those questions. Trump and Manafort had the wrong answers. Sorry, guys.
Trump was trapped:
On Thursday morning, as Trump was leaving the White House for the Group-of-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, he both minimized Cohen’s new version of the facts and asserted that the new version is false. (“Michael Cohen is lying and he’s trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me.”) Trump said that his Moscow deal was widely known when he was running for President (it wasn’t), and that, as a private developer, he was entitled to make such deals. He then cancelled a previously announced meeting with Putin at the G-20, allegedly because of Russia’s current dispute with Ukraine.
Everyone knew that was bullshit. Trump couldn’t afford another Helsinki. Trump couldn’t afford another press conference where he defended Putin against his own government. Trump couldn’t afford to be seen with Putin now. Nothing was easy anymore, and Josh Marshall adds this:
The real issue here is that the President’s most crucial foreign policy decisions (remember, major crisis right now between Russia and Ukraine) are being driven both by his financial interests and, in this case, the fall out of his criminal acts. Meeting with Putin or not, Saudi-friendly or not – these have never been the core issue. The core issue is the root of his foreign policy, which is driven by personal enrichment and perceptions of threat. That’s a pressing danger for the state on all fronts.
Perhaps so, but Toobin says the danger is domestic:
It’s true that Trump had the right to do business in Russia during the time when he was a candidate, but the public also had a right to know where his true financial interests lay. It would have been highly relevant to the public to learn that Trump was negotiating a business deal with Russia at the same time that he was proposing to change American policy toward that country. Not only was the public deprived of this information but Cohen’s guilty plea indicates that voters were actively misled about Trump’s interests. That is what is so important about Thursday morning’s news—it says that while Trump was running for President, he was doing his private business, not the public’s business. Trump may believe that his interest is the national interest, but it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.
Ken White agrees with that and finds a few things here that are remarkable:
The first was that Cohen walked into a Manhattan federal courtroom unannounced. He did it by surprise. We live in a political environment characterized by constant leaks, each choreographed more carefully than a public announcement. The drama of learning what’s going to happen at an event, rather than before the event, has mostly disappeared. But Cohen’s plea, a momentous development in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, happened with no warning. That reflects admirable discipline in Mueller’s office.
The second remarkable thing was that the plea happened at all. Cohen already pleaded guilty in August to eight federal felonies, including tax fraud, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations. That plea already ended his career and exposed him to at least several years in federal prison. By contrast, Cohen’s new plea is to a lone count of lying to Congress in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001 —a weapon Mueller has wielded ruthlessly against President Donald Trump’s followers, including Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort. The conviction won’t increase Cohen’s sentence, and the additional felony count won’t have any perceptible impact on his life…
Normally, federal prosecutors don’t waste time with this sort of rubble-bouncing. So why would Mueller spend the time and resources on it? Because it tells a story about Trump and his campaign. Because it lays a marker.
That’s what happened here:
It’s not clear whether the Constitution allows Mueller to indict a sitting president. But Department of Justice policy forbids it, and Mueller is a rule-follower. If Mueller thinks that the president has committed a federal crime, his remedy is to recommend impeachment in a report to the attorney general. The attorney general, in turn, is supposed to tell Congress the outcome of the special counsel’s investigation and decide whether the report should be made public. Did you catch the problem? The acting attorney general is Matthew Whitaker, Trump’s creature and a vigorous critic of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller has every reason to expect that Whitaker will suppress the report and limit what he shows to Congress.
A formal report is not, however, Mueller’s only way to tell Congress – and the nation – about his conclusions. The journalist Marcy Wheeler has written extensively about her theory that Mueller will “make his report” through court filings against Trump confederates like Manafort and Cohen.
And this is that report:
On Monday, Mueller accused Manafort of lying to investigators, breaching his cooperation agreement, and committing further federal crimes; he promised he’d bring the receipts when he filed briefs urging a long sentence. Those sentencing briefs will let Mueller tell the story of how Manafort lied about the Trump campaign – and, by extension, lay out the evidence of what the Trump campaign did.
Cohen’s case lets Mueller do the same thing – tell a story, make a report. The information – the charging document to which Cohen pleaded, waiving his right to indictment by grand jury – asserts that the Trump Organization planned a hotel in Russia, communicated with Russian officials about it, and even contemplated sending Trump himself for a visit to Russia well into 2016, contrary to Cohen’s congressional testimony that the plan was abandoned in January 2016. The significance is not just that Cohen lied to Congress. The significance is what he lied about: the fact that Team Trump continued to pursue Russian opportunities well into the campaign.
That will be on record. Trump played the Whitaker card, and the Mueller trumped Trump. Mueller wins:
The president of the United States’ personal lawyer admitted to lying to Congress about the president’s business activities with a hostile foreign power, in order to support the president’s story. In any rational era, that would be earthshaking. Now it’s barely a blip. Over the past two years, we’ve become accustomed to headlines like “President’s Campaign Manager Convicted of Fraud” and “President’s Personal Lawyer Paid for Adult Actress’s Silence.” We’re numb to it all. But these are the sorts of developments that would, under normal circumstances, end a presidency.
They still might. Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress to support President Trump’s version of events. He notably did not claim that he did so at Trump’s request, or that Trump knew he would do it. But if Cohen’s telling the truth this time, then this conclusion, at least, is inescapable: The president, who has followed this drama obsessively, knew that his personal lawyer was lying to Congress about his business activities, and stood by while it happened.
The game may be over, but not just for Donald Trump:
Who else lied to Congress about the pursuit of a hotel deal in Russia? Donald Trump Jr.? Did the president himself lie about it in his recent written answers to Mueller’s questions? (His lawyers claim that his answers matched Cohen’s.) Even if the pursuit of the hotel deal wasn’t criminal (and there’s no evidence that it was), everyone in Trump’s orbit who made statements about it – whether under oath or in interviews with the FBI – is in jeopardy today.
They’re not just in danger from Mueller, either. In just weeks, a Democratic majority will take over the House of Representatives. Control of committees will shift, and subpoenas will fly like arrows at Agincourt. Each hearing will present new terrible choices: Take the Fifth, tell uncomfortable truths, or lie and court perjury charges? Each subpoena is a new chance for frightened Trump associates to make new bad decisions like the ones that have felled Cohen and Manafort and Gates and Flynn and Papadopoulos.
I wouldn’t expect President Trump’s agitated tweets to stop anytime soon.
Subpoenas will fly like arrows at Agincourt. That was some battle – the use of the English longbow in large numbers, nearly eight percent of Henry V’s army, devastated of the far larger French cavalry. Accurate ranged and precise weapons on the battlefield win the day. Ken White chooses his metaphors carefully.
Josh Marshall doesn’t deal in metaphors, just the basics:
We can now see documentation and confessions that outline some of what has always seemed probable. During the campaign – for roughly the first year of the campaign! – Donald Trump was actively trying to strike business deals in Russia with the help of Vladimir Putin’s government and working closely with members of the Russian intelligence services. Felix Sater was working with all these people. Trump’s deal-maker and Russian money channel handler, Michael Cohen, literally reached out to Putin’s press office and spoke to a member of the staff to enlist the Russian government’s assistance. This was while Trump was already the clear frontrunner for the nomination.
As this was happening, Putin’s intelligence services were stealing emails and documents from various arms of the Democratic Party. They were mounting various information operations within the United States. As this was happening a bankrupt and desperate political fixer who’d been working for a Putin loyalist for a decade showed up wanting to work for the campaign for free. That’s Paul Manafort, a longtime business partner of Roger Stone, another member of the conspiracy.
Did they work with WikiLeaks? Yes, there was a back channel between Trump and WikiLeaks murkily conducted through Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi and likely others – requests for help in one direction, information and assistance in the other.
All of this has become clear now. A formal report will follow. That formal report may be withheld from the public. It may be withheld from Congress. It doesn’t matter. Mueller has laid it all out in court documents. It’s all a matter of public record now. Marshall notes that it is what it is:
President Trump has been at war with the Russia investigation from the get-go for an obvious and totally logical reason: the depth of his personal involvement in and knowledge of the conspiracy amounts to a devastating indictment of him and his presidency. It all makes perfect sense.
And this was just a short allocution by minor figure in all this, a few minutes in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday morning in late November – nothing much – but sometimes nothing much is everything. Richard Nixon learned that lesson – and Donald Trump may learn that lesson. Or he may not. He hasn’t learned much so far.