Cohen bombshell: is Trump edging toward a criminal charge for obstruction of justice?

An extraordinary new Buzzfeed News report shows the president pressured his attorney and fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

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Just after 7pm on 27 July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted by a margin of 27 to 11 to recommend the first article of impeachment against president Richard Nixon, the first of three articles of impeachment that would emerge from the Watergate scandal and the administration’s efforts to cover it up.

That first article of impeachment charged, the New York Times reported at the time, that Nixon “personally engaged in a ‘course of conduct’ designed to obstruct justice in the Watergate case”. In part, the article of impeachment alleged that the president’s actions included “approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings”.

On Thursday night, Buzzfeed News reported allegations that Trump had done pretty much exactly that. The story, truly a nuclear-grade bombshell by investigative reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, details how, according to two officials investigating the matter, Trump directed his then-attorney and general fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

According to the report, Trump gave Cohen the instruction to lie and fudge the date on which negotiation on the tower ended. He is alleged to have done this, not during the campaign, when a generous read of the situation might allow that at least Trump never expected to win, but after the election had already taken place. As Leopold and Cormier write, while this is not the first time Trump has been alleged to have obstructed the work of the law enforcement agencies investing him  – arguably, firing FBI director James Comey could have constituted that, and that played out in the public eye in the early months of the administration – it is “the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia”.

Cohen surrendered to the FBI last August for charges of fraud and campaign finance violations originating from hush payments he paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and others for their silence about their affairs with Trump. As part of his guilty plea in August, Cohen told the court that he was acting “in coordination with and under the direction of” then-candidate Trump.

In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to the additional charge of lying to Congress, and in December, Cohen was sentenced to three years imprisonment, the longest sentence yet handed out as a result of the investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He is set to begin his sentence in March.

Covering that sentencing hearing, New Statesman America correspondent Sophie McBain wrote:

“In his sentencing memorandum, Mueller wrote that Cohen was cooperating with his investigators and had provided them with useful and credible information. He wrote that “the defendant has made substantial and significant efforts to remediate his misconduct, accept responsibility for his actions, and assist the [Special Counsel’s] investigation,” and recommended that any prison sentence arising from his lies to Congress be served concurrently with his other sentences.”

Those crimes implicated Trump in them. But the Buzzfeed story is the first to directly show the president committing the crime of obstruction of justice – the crime that brought the first impeachment charge against Richard Nixon.

Trump also directed Cohen to visit Vladimir Putin in order to “jump-start” the negotiations over the tower, Buzzfeed reports, adding that Trump as well as his daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr received “regular, detailed updates” about the project. Trump’s family have publicly distanced themselves frm the project. 

The tower was never, in the end, built. But this is another big step in what is increasingly looking like the road towards criminal charges being levelled directly at the president and his immediate family.

And while impeachment proceedings might not stand a chance of passing the Senate, with Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, the prospect of at least hearings over articles of impeachment might not be so far out of the question after all. As freshman Democratic representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib said recently: “we’re gonna impeach that motherfucker.”

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.