Donald Trump’s lawyers and aides have spent the last several months trying to prevent him from doing exactly what he did on Thursday morning—another disastrous broadcast interview. Although he has appeared on Fox News a number of times since becoming pr*sident, Trump’s investigatory liabilities have compounded considerably this year. And the last time Trump did an on-air interview with a mainstream outlet, he told NBC’s Lester Holt in May of 2017 he had fired former FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing.” Those three words completely obliterated the narrative his team had labored to build around Comey’s exit (i.e. mismanagement of the FBI/certain investigations) and practically necessitated an obstruction of justice inquiry be launched if one hadn’t already begun. Robert Mueller was appointed to take over the Russia probe a week later.
But that was way back when “this Russia thing” was the only investigation that posed a potential threat to Trump, and we in the public had only just begun to weave together the strands of evidence that inquiry would yield. Less than a year later, the Russia thing is real—from both a collusion and obstruction standpoint. But now Trump has two more legal and political headaches on his plate: the Stormy Daniels affair and the criminal investigation into this longtime fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen. In other words: triple the jeopardy.
And what Trump managed to do in a little over 1 minute and 30 seconds during his 30-minute call-in interview to Fox was so politically and legally devastating to his case in all three instances, it likely put the nail in the coffin of his presidency. Though it’s impossible to predict exactly how his demise will play out, within the realm of possibilities I would include anything from impeachment to resignation to losing the GOP primary to simply being voted out of office in 2020. My supposition is, even if his words don’t trigger an immediate or precipitous event, Trump wounded himself so badly that the resulting complications will eventually take him down one way or the other.
Why? Because Trump managed to offer up nuggets that significantly strengthen the hand of federal investigators in Cohen’s criminal case, vastly increase the chances he will eventually be deposed in the civil proceeding with Stormy Daniels, and provide further evidence that he plans to tamper with and obstruct the ongoing special counsel investigation into his ties with Russia. As veteran Washington journalist Howard Fineman said on MSNBC Thursday:
I have been covering presidents for a long time. I don’t think I have ever seen, in terms of prosecutions and law and investigations, more self-damage done by a president in one half hour. […] He created a world of hurt in exchange for a half hour of free psychotherapy on Fox & Friends.
And yet, Trump wanted more. His friendly Fox & Friends interviewers actually cut him off—cut him off!—when he started going down the Russian collusion rabbit hole. They mercifully ended the interview for him because he didn’t have the good sense to do it himself and he didn’t have a press person to intervene for him (standard practice in any major political interview). As someone who has interviewed Washington politicians, including a sitting president, let me just say this: you are ALWAYS trying to get in just one more question. Every minute is precious and you ultimately leave with at least a handful or more major topics or specific queries you dearly wish you had been able to touch on. The fact that they basically gave Trump the hook to get him off their platform is unprecedented, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they got a command from the control room to cut it.
Trump’s Stormy-Cohen bombshell
So let’s take this 1:30 in two parts. First, the biggest chunk—a 1.23 clip in which Trump clarifies his relationship to Cohen.
Here’s some context: Trump has an interest in keeping Cohen close to him so he won’t flip and spill everything he knows to federal prosecutors in the criminal investigation of his dealings. For instance, we know Mueller is looking into the effort Cohen led to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Both Trump and Cohen would benefit greatly from having all that correspondence fall under attorney-client privilege. In addition, Cohen wants as many of his materials as possible to be deemed as legal work (not “business” dealings) so they will be shielded by attorney-client privilege—assuming they’re not criminal in nature. (Anything that’s viewed as perpetuating a crime is automatically fair game for investigators.) Cohen’s lawyer had originally argued to the court that the FBI seized “thousands, if not millions” of privileged documents, but when pressed by the judge, Cohen’s team could only come up with three clients: Trump, major RNC donor and Playboy bunny baby-daddy Elliott Broidy, and Fox anchor Sean Hannity, who subsequently claimed Cohen never really worked as counsel for him.
Additionally, Cohen, his lawyer and Trump have all argued that Cohen made the $130,000 payment to Daniels without informing Trump or even talking to Trump about Daniels.
Okay, roll tape…
TRUMP: Let me just tell you that Michael is in business. He’s really a businessman at fairly big businesses, I understand. And I don’t know his business, but this doesn’t have to do with me. Michael is a businessman. He’s got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business, and they’re looking at something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business. I can tell you he’s a good guy. He sometimes —
KILMEADE: But isn’t your business — isn’t his business your attorney, Mr. President?
TRUMP: I have many, many — just so you understand, I have many attorneys. I have attorneys — sadly, I have so many attorneys you wouldn’t even believe it.
DOOCY: How many — how much of your — Mr. President, how much of your legal work was handled by Michael Cohen?
TRUMP: Well, he has a percentage of my overall legal work — a tiny, tiny little fraction. But, Michael would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me — like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal he represented me. And, you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this —
EARHARDT: Then why is he pleading the Fifth?
TRUMP: — which would have been a problem. Because he’s got other things. He’s got businesses, and from what I understand they’re looking at his businesses, and I hope he’s in great shape.
TRUMP: But he’s got businesses, and his lawyers probably told him to do that. But I’m not involved, and I’m not involved — and I’ve been told I’m not involved. (emphasis added)
From a big picture standpoint—Trump put a dagger through the notion that most of Cohen’s seized materials would fall under any sort of attorney-client privilege. He simultaneously played up Cohen’s work as a businessman (using some form of the word “business” no less than 12 times!) while minimizing Cohen’s work as a lawyer, including Cohen’s work as a lawyer for him personally.
He also basically left visible tread marks on Cohen’s forehead by emphasizing all his work as a businessman (not a lawyer), then flagging that work as the main topic of prosecutors’ criminal inquiry, and then casting it aside with ” I have nothing to do with his business” and “I’m not involved.” The topper was Trump saying Cohen invoked the 5th amendment in the Stormy Daniels proceeding because investigators are “looking at his businesses,” which Trump made clear he has nothing to do with. Sorry, Cohen, it’s all on you.
And speaking of Stormy, Trump sure knows a lot more than we were led to believe about that whole saga. First, Trump affirmatively said Cohen represented him in the matter, contradicting his own previous statement that he knew nothing about it. Second, Trump apparently knows enough about the entire transaction to know Cohen did “absolutely nothing wrong” and never used “campaign funds” for the payment. Wowzer.
Here’s a brief listing of more ways the above poses serious problems for Trump and/or Cohen:
1. Trump likely just secured himself a spot in a deposition chair on the Stormy matter since he clearly has knowledge of it and there’s now a great deal of conflicting public statements and legal documentation on the matter. Remember, unlike the negotiation with Mueller’s team, the federal judge in the Daniels case could order Trump to sit for a deposition—so there’s reason to believe Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti might have more leverage over Trump than Mueller does. I personally believe such a deposition could play so poorly for Trump politically that it will seal his fate in any future election, even if he survives the Mueller probe and/or Cohen investigation. There’s a reason Trump has remained uncharacteristically silent on the Stormy affair with the exception of a couple fateful utterances.
2. Regardless of whether “campaign funds” were used to pay Daniels, Trump’s acknowledgement of the payment now opens the question of whether it violated campaign finance laws either as an illegal contribution or as an unreported payment.
3. Trump screwed Cohen in his criminal investigation. Both Trump and Sean Hannity have now trivialized how much legal work, if any, he did for them, casting doubt on how much any of his communications should be deemed privileged—including those in 16 cell phones the FBI reportedly seized in the raid.
4. Trump pushed Cohen—the guy who pretty much holds all cards now—closer to federal prosecutors and Mueller. They will certainly use the interview to argue that Trump is an untrustworthy partner in this legal endeavor and seemingly doesn’t give two shits about Cohen’s fate.
Trump’s obstruction pledge
Just before the Fox hosts quite literally pulled the plug on the interview, Trump was revving up for another “no collusion” diatribe. He got himself all worked into a lather over the 13 “Democrats” on Mueller’s team (god knows how he’s settled on 13), “the Hillary Clinton people,” Andrew McCabe and the “$700,000” contribution Hillary supporters made to his wife’s campaign, and “crooked” James Comey along with other top officials at the FBI. And then…
TRUMP: And you look at the corruption at the top of the FBI. It’s a disgrace. And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t.
TRUMP: Our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia. There is no collusion with me —
EARHARDT: All right.
KILMEADE: All right.
I try and stay away from, but at some point, I won’t.
Trump told a national cable audience that he planned to obstruct justice by intervening at the Department of Justice because he didn’t like what the FBI was doing. And what the FBI is doing is assisting in two major investigations that could implicate him criminally: Russia’s election interference and Cohen’s business dealings.
At that very point, the Fox hosts assured Trump he was a very busy man, who had much more important things to do than continue speaking with them.
“We could talk to you all day but it looks like […] you have a million things to do,” said Fox anchor Brian Kilmeade.
The good news is, if Trump didn’t already singlehandedly destroy his presidency, he apparently wants to take routine bites at the apple, according to Kellyanne Conway on Friday.
“The president had a great time bringing his case directly to the American people,” Conway said. “The president has said that he would like to perhaps come once a month and as news breaks.”