Every time something new comes out about Individual 1 and the Russia investigation, my mother asks me, “Is this the thing that’s going to bring down Trump?” And every time so far, I’ve said “Not yet.” I’ve counseled her to wait for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. I’ve talked to her about the need to take things slow, and to remember that Republican die-hards will argue that X, Y, or Z is really not clearly a crime, or that it’s not that serious, or whatever. When I woke up Friday morning and read what BuzzFeed reported, for the first time I’m ready to give my mother a different answer to her favorite question.
For anyone living under a rock, here’s the guts of it:
President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.
[snip] The two sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie — by claiming that negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did — in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.
The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
Yes, I’ve got the obligatory “if” right up there in the title. And yes, this could turn out to be some kind of mistake, or fall apart for some unforeseen reason. But bear in mind that we’re talking about two law enforcement sources, emails, texts, and not just a pile but a cache of documents. That carefully chosen noun suggests that law enforcement is in possession of more than just a couple. Given how explosive this particular charge is, it is inconceivable (yes, the word does mean what I think it means) that it would be leaked unless it was the truth. Having said that, the special counsel’s office issued the following statement on Friday: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.” It is unclear exactly which elements of the reporting are “not accurate.” Buzzfeed, however stands by its story, saying: “We remain confident in the accuracy of our report.”
So, to paraphrase the first of the four questions traditionally asked at the Passover Seder, “Why is this charge different from all other charges?”
Here’s the answer: because it’s a clear, straight-up crime that anyone who has watched, well, any TV series about lawyers and the courts can understand (and, let’s face it, that’s just about every American). I’m not saying the other allegations made against Trump or his associates aren’t serious, believe me. When the Mueller report comes out, there may well be plenty more serious charges. But based on what we’ve seen so far, this one is the game-changer.
It’s one thing to say that the Trump campaign, or even his campaign chief, talked to Russians, strategized with Russians, or even exchanged information with Russians from inside or outside their government. It’s at least possible, albeit highly unlikely, that such high-level collusion could have happened without Trump’s knowledge. Evidence proving Trump was directly responsible hasn’t emerged yet. Did Trump’s campaign meet the high ethical standards of the Al Gore 2000 campaign when it came to receiving information on the opposing camp that they were not supposed to possess? Hell, I don’t even think they met the ethical standards of these guys. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Going beyond collusion, yes, Trump drafted a false statement to the press about his son’s involvement in the June 2016 New York Trump Tower meeting, but impeaching him on that basis alone is not going to happen—and should not, either, as that’s not a crime that justifies overturning an election. Did The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote obstruct justice by firing FBI director James Comey? Maybe, but I don’t see impeachment resulting from that either, even if he sort of admitted that he did so at least in part because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” The newest charge, however, is something different not just by degree, but in kind.
Trump told his lawyer to lie under oath about his business dealings with Russia. That’s a straight-up crime—and it is a crime that has nothing to do with carrying out the duties of his office, or trying to win an election with unethical tactics. It is a crime that anyone—not just a president—could commit. It is the crime of a corrupt person who wanted to cover up actions he had already lied about publicl, actions that would have severely damaged his political standing.
More than that, the question of the timing of Trump’s involvement in business dealings with Russia, specifically whether it went on during the campaign, is itself a matter of great public importance, one that would have been of significant interest to voters when casting their ballots. Furthermore, it is a matter that bears directly on the broader investigation of possible Russian influence over Trump. This is not, for example, a lie about having an affair. It is an obstruction of justice over something that goes to the heart of Trump’s fitness to serve as president, even to the question of where his loyalty lies.
Rather than admit the truth about his attempts to make money in Russia while running for president, it looks like Trump committed the crime of suborning perjury. It’s very simple and straightforward. He, himself—not someone on his campaign—appears to have taken this action directly. There’s nothing confusing about this, and there’s no way to explain it away as being someone else’s fault. If there’s evidence—and that’s always the rub, the quality of the evidence—that he did this, he will have to go. Even Trump’s nominee to be U.S. attorney general just this week acknowledged that this kind of action qualifies as obstruction of justice. We cannot tolerate a president who is guilty of obstruction of justice.
Trump probably assumed anything he told his lawyer was privileged, being too stupid and/or uninformed to realize that there are exceptions to attorney-client privilege, and one of them is called the “crime-fraud exception.” We’ve already seen evidence that Trump doesn’t have a clue about this. Suborning perjury is one of the primary examples of the crime-fraud exception.
Compounding his crime, Trump responded to the BuzzFeed article by, wait for it, committing another crime—witness tampering—when he again threatened Cohen by talking about his father-in-law. This response was noteworthy for not containing a denial by Trump of the actual charges leveled. Even Fox News noticed the lack of an actual denial, at least in this initial response, although Rudy Giuliani did issue a denial later on Friday.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib offered a prediction, or maybe even a promise, on the day after she was sworn in as a new member of Congress. She said: “We’re going to go in and impeach the motherf*#ker.” Whatever one thinks of that language, it’s a hell of a lot less offensive than many of the things the motherf*#ker himself has said. As for another comparison, as we’ve learned from Media Matters, Tlaib’s potty-mouth got five times the media coverage Rep. Steve King got for asking what’s so bad about a little white supremacy—a disparity in coverage that stands at about 60 to 1 when it comes to Fox News. Talk about some people who need to be impeached and removed from their position.
Nothing in life, or politics, is certain. I don’t believe most Republicans will act based on principle—although I’m certainly open to the possibility. I do believe that this charge, if backed up by the kind of serious, documented evidence we’ve been hearing about, is the one that could break the dam in terms of public opinion.
We’ve seen Trump’s poll numbers fall significantly in the past month, starting with the #TrumpShutdown. While some Republicans really do agree with Trump on issues like immigration, and pretty much all of them agree on sending money up the chain to millionaires and billionaires, there are a decent chunk who do realize that he’s unfit to serve—but who are also not going to turn on him while he still holds enough sway with Republican voters to hurt them in a primary. Those cowards—I mean pragmatists, might be persuaded to move against him if a.) the charge is serious enough, and b.) the public mood turns against Trump strongly enough to give them cover.
I haven’t spoken to my mother since this news broke. When I do, I know this topic will come up, along with the question of Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. In fact, this time, I won’t even wait for her to ask it.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).