You usually won’t go wrong not trusting anything Michael Cohen says.
But if there’s one person who’s less trustworthy than Michael Cohen, it’s Donald Trump, so when the two of them make irreconcilable claims, believing Michael Cohen isn’t necessarily crazy.
Cohen now says, according to sources who spoke to CNN, that he is willing to testify Trump knew about the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager sought stolen dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian agents in advance, and approved it. Moreover, Cohen says he and “several” people were present when Donald Trump, Jr. informed his dad about the meeting, and got the green light.
Trump and his criminal defense lawyer Rudy Giuliani both dispute Cohen’s story outright. Giuliani told CNN Thursday night that Cohen is “walking into a situation in which there will be no corroboration.”
Assuming CNN didn’t botch the story (if they had, Cohen presumably would’ve set the record straight immediately) then someone is lying. And it’s probably the guy who’s been lying about the meeting all along. If forced to pick a side, I would pick Cohen’s, if only because it is hard come up with a credible explanation for Cohen putting forth wildly fabricated version of events, and setting a public expectation that he would testify to a huge lie under oath.
If CNN’s story is correct, then either:
- Cohen is volunteering to perjure himself against the testimony of the “several others” he claims can corroborate his story;
- Cohen willing to accuse “several others” of perjuring themselves under oath, or;
- Some of the others have already told prosecutors the truth, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller already knows.
Option 1 makes no sense. Option 2 makes some sense, but if Cohen had the goods on both the conspiracy and the coverup, he would be trading the information to prosecutors for a deal.
The most natural explanation is 3: that Cohen is being honest for once, and that he’s only coming forward with this information publicly because he can’t trade this information to prosecutors, because they already have it.
His story has the benefit of being a version of events that people very close to Trump believed to be true before this week. Even if he is lying about being a witness, and about Trump giving his son the go ahead, he almost certainly knew about the meeting shortly before or shortly after it happened. Seven months and eight lifetimes ago, Steve Bannon lost his White House job because, among other things, he told the writer Michael Wolff, “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos [read: Russian agents] up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.” Two months later, another former Trump adviser, Sam Nunberg told CNN he believes that when Trump says that he didn’t know about the meeting, he’s lying.
It also strains credulity that Trump wouldn’t know about a meeting that all of his campaign principals attended, or that he has walked back his initial denial over and over again, and the truth just happens to coincide on the last possible version of events that spares Trump himself any guilt. Trump loyalists, who see the writing on the wall, are now test-driving the shameful line that colluding with Russian intelligence to beat Hillary Clinton wasn’t that bad. The people most resistant to the simplest explanation for what’s staring us in the face are reporters, who, understandably, can’t make allegations they can’t prove, no matter how obvious they seem.
If we assume Cohen wouldn’t come forward with a pledge to perjure himself just for kicks, and falsely incriminate the president, the one unanswered question is why would he come forward at all? There are a handful of reasonable, hypothetical answers to that question: He could be desperately and counterproductively trying to make hard-nosed prosecutors rethink a plea deal. His lawyers may have concluded that Cohen is going to face trial, and are trying to prejudice the New York jury pool by turning Cohen into the hero who took down the awful president. It could be that he knows everyone’s busted and he and his lawyers want to be the first to come clean publicly for reputational reasons.
But we don’t even really need to answer it. The only thing we need to decide whose storyline is more plausible is to hold generous interpretations of both narratives up against one another and pick the one that fits the facts we already know most cleanly. It’s Cohen’s by a mile.