Cohen's best shots at Trump miss their mark

After bilking corporations out of millions of dollars for "insight" into his client, failing to pay his taxes, trying to entrap his client, and pleading guilty to lying to Congress, now-disbarred attorney Michael Cohen took his best shots at President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE, calling him a liar and a cheat. The testimony brought Congress to a new low after years of dead-end investigations of supposed Russia-Trump conspiracies.

Yes, Trump was behind payments to women who may have had stories to tell. He and his counselor, Rudy Giuliani, already admitted they reimbursed Cohen for any payments he made. The stories these women had to tell were embarrassing but were not about any illegal behavior. It was not a crime to pay for their stories at any time, in any way. They were personal, not campaign expenditures.

This legal point was litigated in the past with the trial of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, and the FEC has ruled that the Edwards payments — even from donors — were not campaign contributions. His checks to his paramour were not campaign expenditures.

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The fact that prosecutors in the Southern District of New York pushed Cohen to plead guilty to campaign violations for his payments to Stormy Daniels does not change the fact that it was not a crime at all to make those payments. In fact, if people tried to use campaign money for such purposes, they would likely get into trouble.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Majority of Democratic voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country GOP lawmakers speak out against 'send her back' chants MORE’s campaign team, it should be remembered, did disguise their payments to Fusion GPS for opposition research — and those were, without question, campaign expenditures for which former British spy turned oppo researcher Christopher Steele was the ultimate undisclosed beneficiary.

And let’s not forget that hundreds of those serving in Congress over the years paid sexual harassment claims using government funds complete with “hush” agreements. By the same logic, they would all be campaign contributions.

The rest of Cohen’s testimony and many of the questions from House Oversight Committee members were a farce: Trump didn’t want to disclose his grades in college. Cohen uniquely heard Trump say something racist. Trump inflated the value of a picture of himself. Trump must have known about the Trump Tower meeting because he saw someone whisper about something. Trump, Cohen had to admit under questioning, did not take drugs. Trump, shockingly, does not have a love child.

I have never seen questions asked, rapid-fire, about the personal traits of a sitting president designed simply to elicit embarrassing information.

Perhaps Congress has a new mission statement I missed — since it no longer agrees on legislation, it now investigates the personal lives of people, checking whether they have out-of-wedlock kids or paid for abortions? Is this why we elected Democrats to replace gridlocked Republicans?

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At the same time, Cohen stuck to what he no doubt has told prosecutors. He did not have any evidence of collusion with Russia. He did not, as the Steele dossier alleged, go to Prague and act as the go-between for the campaign in exchange for billions of dollars. Had he, in fact, gone to Prague, he no doubt would have taken the offer. 

Tragically for Cohen, he was investigated in the first place because of the Steele dossier and these false claims of his Prague meeting. But special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s scorched-earth investigation was never about just verifying the dossier; it was always about fully investigating everyone mentioned in it and all of their financial dealings, and even their family members.

Unfortunately for Cohen, that meant reviewing all his finances and banking records — and that exercise revealed Cohen was running a racket selling his supposed insights into Trump, failing to pay taxes, and committing bank fraud as the value of his taxi medallions plummeted.

I worked with President Clinton when a flimsy investigation about an Arkansas land deal morphed into an investigation of the president’s personal life. Just like here, those close to the president and the first lady found themselves in jail over financial issues, while the independent counsel came up empty-handed as related to the first couple. So the investigation then turned into the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It took America down a rabbit hole for a year.

Cohen took his best shot — and maybe it will reduce his sentence. His testimony may have lit up cable TV, but it didn’t really show anything new beyond Cohen’s willingness to throw the kitchen sink at Trump. It did confirm that the Russia-Trump collusion investigation is dead and that congressional Democrats have no new witnesses on that score.

In the end, impeachment for personal behavior strengthened President Clinton politically with Americans and increased his majority in Congress. It’s proven to be a losing strategy for any party that goes down this road, especially when the other side of the TV split-screen is a historic summit to reduce a nuclear threat to the world. 

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.