Since the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election began in May last year, the president has managed to retain some personal distance from the allegations that his campaign colluded with the Russians. No longer. On Thursday night, CNN broke the news that Donald Trump’s longstanding personal lawyer Michael Cohen was willing to testify to investigator Robert Mueller that the president knew in advance of a 2016 meeting between campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on his then-rival, Hillary Clinton.
If Cohen is telling the truth, it’s the strongest indication to date that the president colluded with Russia in the elections.
Cohen was formerly one of Trump’s most loyal aides and a Trump Organisation dealmaker with insights into the company’s more nefarious business practices, But he has flipped under mounting pressure from Mueller’s investigative team. Cohen was reportedly outraged by his former boss’s indifference to his legal troubles, after the lawyer’s home and office were raided by the FBI in April.
“He had to hit a reset button,” Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis, told the Washington Post. “He had to say he respected the FBI. He had to say he believed the intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election. He had to describe the Trump Tower meeting as extremely poor judgment at best. And, ultimately, he said, ‘I’m not going to be a punching bag anymore,’ which he had been when he said, ‘I’ll take a bullet.’”
Earlier this week, Cohen released audio of a phone conversation he had with the president in which the pair appeared to discuss the payment of hush money to a Playboy model with whom Trump had an affair. The recording confirms that the president was heavily involved in efforts to silence Karen McDougal and suggests he may have wanted to pay her off in cash to avoid a paper trail (although the audio is unclear on this point, and Trump Organisation lawyers say the deal never happened). It also provides evidence of the involvement of Trump’s financial adviser, Allen Weisselberg, in the agreement.
Weisselberg has worked for the Trump Organisation since the 1970s. He “has detailed information about the Trump Organisation’s operations, business deals and finances. If he winds up in investigators’ crosshairs for secreting payoffs, he could potentially provide much more damaging information to prosecutors than Cohen ever could about the president’s dealmaking”, Timothy L. O’Brien wrote for Bloomberg.
Federal investigators reportedly have more than 100 recordings made by Cohen during phone calls discussing Trump and his businesses, according to the Washington Post. Pressure is ramping up on the president.
The infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump’s grown-up son Don Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign manager Paul Manafort and a prominent Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya took place after an intermediary contacted Don Jr., promising to provide material that would “incriminate” Clinton. “I love it,” he replied by email. Don Jr. testified to Congress and Kushner to the Mueller investigation that the president did not know about the meeting beforehand.
Trump bashed out a pre-dawn denial of Cohen’s allegation. “Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam,” he tweeted. And in an emotional interview with CNN last night, the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani dismissed Cohen as a “pathological liar” with “no credibility” – two characteristics one could accurately attribute to Trump, too.
So which of the two proven liars are we to believe? It will be interesting now to see whether Cohen is able to bring forward any witnesses to corroborate his account.
It’s noteworthy, too, that Cohen is not the first Trump aide to suggest that the president knew more than he is letting on about the Trump Tower meeting.
Speaking to the journalist Michael Wolff, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said that there was “zero” chance the Russians did not also speak to Trump during that meeting. He described the decision to meet with Veselnitskaya, rather than contacting the FBI over this approach from a foreign government, as “treasonous” “unpatriotic” and “bad shit”. “The chance that Don Jr did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” Bannon told Wolff. At the time, Trump responded with a personal attack on Bannon.
It seems foolhardy to predict a turning point in the Trump presidency, when the president has weathered countless scandals that would surely sink anyone else – not least when earlier this month, he sided with Vladimir Putin over the findings of his own intelligence community on the question of Russian election interference. And yet, if Cohen is now able to provide evidence that Trump actively colluded with a foreign and hostile nation to undermine American democracy then this might well be the beginning of the end for the 45th president of the United States.