As indictments and plea agreements by the Mueller team have been released, the common theme we’ve heard from Trump and his enablers has been that they don’t involve the president and, therefore, the investigation has proven nothing about “collusion” (the word Trump prefers to “conspiracy,” for obvious reasons). Cohen’s plea agreement goes a step further in that it involves a potential business deal between the Trump organization and the Russians, which both the president and his lawyer lied about.
But what most of us know about how agreements in cases like this work is that the person entering a deal pleads to a lesser crime in exchange for their testimony. As such, here is what we’ve seen from Trump associates so far:
- Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador.
- George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about hearing from Joseph Mifsud that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.
- Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to his past work for Ukrainian politicians and his finances.
- Rick Gates pleaded to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of making false statements to the FBI.
While those are all damning statements, none of them get at the heart of proving a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. And while Cohen’s plea agreement implicates the president in lies, and paves the way for how business ties could have been a part of the conspiracy, it doesn’t address it directly.
On the other hand, it has been reported that Cohen has already spent more than 70 hours being interviewed by the Mueller team. A source told ABC News that those discussions have “focused on contacts with Russians by Trump associates during the campaign, Trump’s business ties to Russia, obstruction of justice and talk of possible pardons.” Based on what Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. have said publicly in the past, Trump Tower Moscow was just one item that would fall under the category of “Trump’s business ties to Russia.”
To give you some idea of what proof of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia would look like, we can turn to the Steele dossier. It states that Michael Cohen took over management of the conspiracy from Paul Manafort, after he was fired as the Trump campaign manager. It also describes a trip Cohen allegedly took to Prague to coordinate activities with the Russians. Specifically, the dossier states that the meeting’s agenda included a discussion about cash payments to the hackers “who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” It goes on to say that, “on payments, Ivanov’s associate said that the operatives involved had been paid by both Trump’s team and the Kremlin.”
That is precisely the kind of thing that Cohen could help the special prosecutor unpack—via both his testimony and assistance with tracking down the paper trail.
During an interview with Chuck Todd on Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff said something we should all keep in mind.
TODD: Do you believe that Michael Cohen has now been forthcoming on everything else he said to you, or do you believe this is the only thing he lied to your committee about?
SCHIFF: You know, there’s no way for us to know. I think the special counsel has been very strategic about what he is willing to disclose publically and when he’s willing to disclose it.
So the fact that they chose this particular guilty plea, as opposed to other things that Michael Cohen may have admitted to the special counsel…may be only a part of what Bob Mueller knows, that may shed more light on other aspects of Michael Cohen’s testimony that the special counsel’s not ready to disclose.
With so much at stake, it can be hard to be patient with Mueller’s slow methodical process. But it can’t be stressed enough that, with each step he’s taken, the special counsel has demonstrated that he’s still holding a lot of cards pretty close to his chest.