It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to take a victory lap after Robert Mueller’s big reveal yesterday — even if the game might not even yet be in the fourth quarter. Trump declared this morning that Mueller’s court filings revealed “NO COLLUSION!” after tweeting last night that Mueller’s record “totally clears” him. But that assumes that we’ve seen Mueller’s entire hand:
Totally clears the President. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018
AFTER TWO YEARS AND MILLIONS OF PAGES OF DOCUMENTS (and a cost of over $30,000,000), NO COLLUSION!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2018
Politico gives a rather skeptical review of this claim:
President Donald Trump again insisted Saturday that his 2016 presidential campaign did not conspire with Russia, hammering the special counsel the morning after three long-awaited court filings shed more light on the Trump team’s contact with Russian officials and others linked to the Kremlin. …
According to a filing Friday from special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors that he reached out to Russia’s government to set up a meeting during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly in late 2015, after conferring with Trump beforehand.
The filing from Mueller’s office also disclosed that Cohen spoke to an unnamed Russian national claiming to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation in or around November 2015. That person offered to help Trump’s campaign with “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level,” according to the filing.
What Politico doesn’t note is that the Russians never took Cohen up on the offer. The Washington Post does note that the contact didn’t go anywhere, in part because of the earlier effort to build in Moscow. Note also that the date for this contact comes months prior to the DNC hack, which makes this much less collusion-y:
Mueller revealed that Cohen told prosecutors about what seemed to be a previously unknown November 2015 contact with a Russian national, who claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation offering the campaign “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.”
Cohen told investigators that the person, who was not identified, repeatedly proposed a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that such a meeting could have a “phenomenal” impact, “not only in political but in a business dimension as well,” the special counsel’s office wrote.
Cohen, though, did not follow up on the invitation, because he was already working on a Trump project in Moscow through a different person he believed to have Russian government connections, the special counsel’s office wrote.
There’s another flaw in this for “collusion” purposes — Cohen didn’t work on the campaign. He worked as Trump’s personal attorney. Also, the “collusion” theory also included the idea that Cohen went to Prague to further these efforts, a thread that seems to have evaporated from the case, at least thus far. Cohen denied ever traveling to Prague, and now Mueller’s filing asserts Cohen didn’t follow up at all. Cohen’s crime is that he lied about the contact, which might be understandable if he thought the contact might have unsavory connections, although lying about it made his problem exponentially worse. (Cohen’s other big problem, apart from his alleged criminality, is that he doesn’t seem too bright.)
So is Trump vindicated? Not really, no. Cohen isn’t the only possible conduit for a “collusion” charge; Mueller’s still interested in Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, who theoretically had closer proximity to the attempts to suss out the DNC hack. Furthermore, Mueller’s new sentencing memo notes that Cohen discussed his idea of making a back-channel contact with Russia in 2015 with “Individual-1,” obviously Donald Trump:
The defendant, without prompting by the SCO, also corrected other false and misleading statements that he had made concerning his outreach to and contacts with Russian officials during the course of the campaign. For example, in a radio interview in September 2015, the defendant suggested that Individual 1 meet with the President of Russia in New York City during his visit for the United Nations General Assembly. When asked previously about these events, the defendant claimed his public comments had been spontaneous and had not been discussed within the campaign or the Company. During his proffer sessions, the defendant admitted that this account was false and that he had in fact conferred with Individual 1 about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting. The meeting ultimately did not take place.
This is what led to the November 2015 contact with someone who was supposedly a “trusted person” in the Putin regime who could supply the requisite “synergy on a government level.” Note that this doesn’t necessarily involve any collusion per se, as the DNC hack hadn’t yet been known by anyone. Presidential candidates often seek international connections in order to bolster their perceived expertise, and as a global real-estate magnate, Trump would have had those channels to work. There would have been nothing illegal about it. The fact that nothing came of it makes it look more benign, or at least non-malicious on Trump’s part.
However, Cohen’s failure to tell the truth about it at least makes it curious. If Mueller asked about this in his written interrogatory to Trump — and it’s almost certain he would have used this information — Trump had better have answered it honestly. If not, Trump just walked into a perjury trap, one that would almost certainly get the attention of the new Democratic majority in the House.
There’s more here in Mueller’s memos that might interest them, too, especially about illegal campaign-finance activities involving hush money. Cohen now tells Mueller that “Individual-1” directed those payoffs, which opens up new legal and political problems for Trump:
During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories – each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 – so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. (PSR ¶ 51). In particular, and
as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.
This has nothing to do with “collusion,” of course, but in some ways it’s a bigger problem. The collusion hypothesis is almost certainly never going to convince enough people to be truly dangerous to Trump (unless he inadvertently corroborates it with careless statements), but everyone in politics will grasp the implications of these payoffs. If Mueller can find independent corroboration involving documents or testimony from witnesses that haven’t already perjured themselves, Trump could face serious political and legal consequences, especially once he leaves office. John Edwards managed to avoid a conviction for the same kind of crime, but Edwards didn’t have the shadow of Russia and obstruction, either.
It’s still possible that both threads go nowhere, too. The always-wise Andrew McCarthy argues that Mueller isn’t seeking a prosecution of Trump, but just a report that paints a grim picture of the president. Trump will bank on his ability to spin the report — an effort that went into overdrive the last two days — in the absence of an indictment, and that Congress will be loathe to impeach and remove him without one. That’s not vindication either, and even then, until we see the report any declarations of vindication are highly premature. In this case, it’s best to keep your arms and hands inside the ride until it comes to a complete stop.
Update: A sentence on the timing of the Russia contact got left out because of my editing error; it has been added back in.
Update: Jeffrey Toobin’s right about this, but …
As Mueller put it in Friday’s Cohen court documents: “The defendant’s false statements obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues. The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1 [aka Donald Trump] well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and SCO investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. Similarly, it was material that Cohen, during the campaign, had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia.”
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin phrased it slightly differently in the wake of Cohen’s plea agreement: “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.”
… but that makes for a political argument, not a legal or constitutional violation. Democrats can argue this and undoubtedly will in 2020. If voters feel betrayed by Trump’s lack of transparency on his business ventures, they can vote him out of office. It wasn’t illegal, and would not be a legitimate reason (on its own) to either impeach or indict Trump.