Breaking Down the Cohen Testimony

Last week, Michael Cohen testified in front of a House Panel. Today, he is back on Capitol Hill to answer more questions. In his testimony, Trump’s former personal attorney made statements relating to hush money for Adult Film Star Stormy Daniels, suspicions of Russian involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign, and the president’s infidelity and alleged racist behavior. While many have labeled it a “bombshell,” it remains to be seen what will come of it. I sat down with Phillip Klinkner, Professor of Government at Hamilton College, to dissect the key parts of Cohen’s testimony and to try to answer the question: now what?

By Peter Case

Cohen heavily criticized President Trump in his testimony, accusing him of cheating, lying, racist behavior, and bribery. Despite the breadth and severity of his allegations, Cohen brought little in the way of empirical evidence. It seems that despite the media frenzy surrounding the hearings, this will not prove to be the “smoking gun” testimony in the Trump investigations. But the exhibits that Cohen’s attorneys provided may prove useful to both federal and New York State prosecutors and have the potential to push the needle towards impeachment. 

The Investigations

President Trump is currently facing three investigations: the federal case headed by Robert Mueller focused on Russian collusion and two investigations from New York, one from state prosecutors for New York’s southern district and one from the state’s Attorney General’s office regarding illegal practices in Trump’s businesses and charities. All three investigations have been in close contact, sharing their findings and conferring evidence between departments.

The Checks

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis provided the House Judiciary committee with a check made out to Cohen from President Trump for $34,000, claiming it was hush money to be paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels to cover up alleged sexual misconduct during the 2016 campaign. According to the New York Times, this was one of eleven checks of this nature that the President or his trust wrote. “This could be an impeachable act,” Professor Klinkner said. “This was in direct violation of campaign finance laws and this occurred while Trump was president.” However, the existence of these checks is likely not the smoking gun needed to remove Trump from office. “There are a lot of things that are violations of the law but do they rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors? That’s a political determination.” Even if the House Judiciary Committee confirmed the hush money payments, bringing articles of impeachment requires both the Democratic House and the Republican Senate; the latter is highly unlikely to turn against the White House.

The Russian Question

The most auspicious accusation leveled at President Trump is that of Russian collusion during the 2016 Presidential campaign, an accusation that, if proven true, might result in treason charges and impeachment. Prosecutors and democratic lawmakers were hoping that Cohen’s congressional testimony might contain some clear and direct evidence that such collusion occurred. However, Cohen’s understanding of Russian involvement did not extend beyond conjecture. Cohen “didn’t really add anything new on the Russia side,” Professor Klinkner said, “he said he had suspicions but it wasn’t something he was really in the loop on.” Prosecutors, House Democrats, and media outlets alike were all sorely disappointed by the lack of evidence regarding the Russia question, especially as the Mueller investigation comes to a close. 

Impeachment

“So what does this mean in terms of impeachment? We don’t know.”

As the Trump investigations inch along, and the 2020 elections grow closer and closer, the roads to the oft-speculated impeachment grow fewer and narrower. With less than a year until the Iowa caucus, the decision to bring articles of impeachment depends on several factors. First, if the Democrats lose control of the House in 2020, it is “extremely unlikely” that Trump will be impeached. President Trump’s approval rating is “low, but steady; he operates in the high 30’s to low 40’s” and the 80-90% Republican support is “essentially impervious to any new information.” As such, barring an obvious criminal offense or abuse of office charge, Trump’s impeachment in an all-Republican Washington is nearly impossible. 

Second, prosecutors would need much more evidence than what Cohen provided. While the existence of the hush money checks is significant, it is likely not enough to sway the partisan Congress towards impeachment. “The kinds of things they are looking at could potentially be impeachable offenses; the Democrats are building a case,” said Klinkner. Evidence keeps trickling in, but the accumulation “may end up taking so long that it runs into the 2020 election anyway.” To pursue impeachment, Democrats need a smoking gun, and Cohen’s testimony did not provide that. 

Third, the State-led investigations in New York could potentially lead to an indictment, as there is nothing “barring states from indicting a sitting president.” However, any state indictment would likely be brought to the Supreme Court and would struggle to be upheld, as a Supreme Court confirmation would set a precedent in which rogue states could issue indictments with impunity.

As of right now, the only feasible road to impeachment relies on a massive breakthrough in the Trump investigations. With the Mueller probe concluding within the next few weeks and the House holding “de facto impeachment hearings,” such a breakthrough may just come to pass. As for now though, Democrats “need more than what Cohen gave.”


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