Cohen is terrible witness but dangerous risk to Trump

Cohen is terrible witness but dangerous risk to Trump
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Listening to Lanny Davis discuss his client, Michael Cohen, one would think he had been airlifted out of the clutches of truly dark, sinister forces. Davis told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that Cohen is now “liberated to tell the truth” and that we are “going to see a liberated Michael Cohen speaking truth to power.” Given his history of false statements and fraudulent dealings, the “liberation” of the former lawyer for Donald Trump is the most remarkable rescue since the raid on Entebbe in Uganda.

His liberation is being cited as the reason Cohen has implicated President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE in the knowing commission of federal crimes in violation federal election laws to silence alleged former mistresses. This liberation is the result of what Davis previously described as the “new resolve” of Cohen to “reset his life” and try to “tell the truth.”

The problem for Cohen is playing a credible role as both hostage and hostage taker. If what Cohen said in court yesterday is true, then most of what he said for more than a year was demonstrably false. That hardly makes for a compelling witness. However, this is a new and dangerous development for Trump who is left effectively as an unindicted co-conspirator in federal crimes.

That remains a big “if.” For either an indictment or impeachment, critics will need a lot more than a “liberated” or non-liberated Cohen. The new, improved Cohen already has a shaky record. Recently, he made his big play in releasing a tape that he secretly recorded with his client discussing the payment of money to silence one of Trump’s alleged mistresses. He then claimed Trump knew about the meeting in Trump Tower and approved it in advance. If true, Cohen’s account easily could force criminal charges against Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpIf Mueller's report lacks indictments, collusion is a delusion Bill Maher questions whether Democrats put 'too much trust' in Mueller report Kushner to cooperate with Judiciary document requests MORE for perjury and false statements to federal investigators. It also would contradict the repeated statements of President Trump and his staff.

The shot at Trump and his son fundamentally changed the stakes in the game. He implicated Donald Jr., the same man Cohen praised on July 11, 2017, in his handling of the allegations over the meeting; back then, Cohen declared on Twitter: “So proud of @DonaldJTrumpJr for being open, honest and transparent to the American people. This nonsense needs to stop!”

One year later, Cohen effectively called Donald Jr. a liar and claimed President Trump gave him a green light to sit down with Russians promising dirt on Clinton. In making this play, Cohen added one notable element that gave it added credibility: He said various top aides were in the room when Trump was briefed on the meeting. If he’s lying, it was a reckless detail since he could have simply said Trump disclosed his knowledge in a one-on-one conversation. That way it would simply be his word against Trump’s.

It is still possible that this is a grand conspiracy and someone in that alleged meeting will come forward to support Cohen’s account. However, Cohen is still one witness short on that claimed conspiracy. Of course, Cohen is not the only person yesterday reshaping reality in an implausible image. In a statement, President Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, declared there was "no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen." That is only the case if you ignore the clear import of the government’s filing and the direct implication of Trump by Cohen under oath in open court. Giuliani is correct that the Justice Department went to great lengths not to directly reference Trump either by name or as “the candidate.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Manual encourages prosecutors not to name individuals who are not being indicted, or even implicate such individuals indirectly unless necessary for a complete and accurate narrative. However, the prosecutors did implicate other individuals like David Pecker, CEO of the National Enquirer, who is described as a “chairman” who coordinated with Cohen and members of the campaign to “help deal with negative stories about [Trump’s] relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”

The language of the indictment was carefully crafted to avoid such an implication of Trump by the Justice Department – only to have Cohen do so in open court in a prepared statement. Putting aside the effort to shield the president in the indictment, the import is clear and unsettling for the Trump team: This is no immaculate crime described by the Justice Department. The indictment describes an array of individuals who knowingly participated in an alleged conspiracy to violate federal election laws; that would include Pecker, Trump and potentially others. It would be curious if the Justice Department would indict the lawyer but not the other actors in such a crime, particularly someone like Pecker who actually put up the money to keep former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal silent.

This is why Cohen may be both liberated and a liar but still constitute a clear and present danger to Trump. Today, Trump tweeted that “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” However, as bad and corrupt as Trump’s team paints Cohen, there is no escaping the fact that this was the guy that Trump wanted as his lawyer. Indeed, it was only weeks ago that Trump called Cohen his lawyer, directed reporters to him regarding the payment to Daniels, and then had a very public dinner with Cohen at Mar-a-Lago.

For now, Trump is facing a liberated, self-confessed liar. That could change. The fact is that this is no longer just Cohen. In filing this indictment, the Justice Department had to certify that it believed the allegations to be true. That means Pecker and others are now at risk and could present additional risks for Trump. It is a cautionary tale for many where one man’s liberation can easily become another’s incarceration.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.