Michael Cohen isn't the answer to Democratic prayers

Michael Cohen isn't the answer to Democratic prayers
© Stefani Reynolds

In his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Michael Cohen claimed to be remorseful about having worked for the dark side. "I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty — of the things I did for Mr. Trump.”  

Color me unimpressed. If Michael Cohen hadn’t been caught he would still be happily threatening high school principals if they released President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE’s transcripts or anyone else who might damage the Trump brand. Cohen’s contrition was the act of a cynic in trouble, not that of a repentant who saw the light. His cooperation appears premised on what he believes will benefit himself.  

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Now, that’s true of many, if not most, cooperating accomplice witnesses, who can be invaluable to prosecutors in putting together cases against mob bosses, narcotics kingpins, and, yes, even presidents of the United States. They provide eyewitness testimony to possible crimes by their superiors and a fly-on-the-wall insight into the culture of the organization under investigation.

But, by nature, such witnesses require careful handling, after all, they become witnesses by an act of treachery against the individual or organization whom they had once served loyally. Once dedicated to furthering a criminal enterprise, they now dedicate themselves to proving their value to prosecutors in return for more lenient treatment. Experienced prosecutors insist on corroboration before bringing a case based on the testimony of accomplice witness.     

Cohen’s testimony in most respects was short of corroboration, at least so far. True, he had sensational things to say, such as that Trump is a “racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat.” But, really, didn’t we know that already? Sensational claims are not the same as substance.

Or take his account of the report to Trump by longtime advisor Roger J. Stone that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had told Stone that WikiLeaks was about to make a “massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDavis: The shocking fact that Mueller never would have accused Trump of a crime Trump says he would challenge impeachment in Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE’s campaign.” Or, his assertion that Trump had implicitly directed him to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Russia. Both were also sensational claims, but lacking corroboration from either another witness or a document.

Only a few aspects of Cohen’s testimony were both apparently new and seemingly corroborated by documents. These include his testimony that Trump wrote a reimbursement check to Cohen in the White House for the hush money payments and his claim that Trump manipulated his financial statements. Cohen brought both types of documents to the hearing.

But Cohen doesn’t deserve much credit for either. Federal prosecutors in New York had already revealed Trump’s potentially criminal involvement with hush money payments in the documents they filed in connection with Cohen’s guilty plea to, among other crimes, violations of campaign finance law (it was no revelation by Cohen that “Individual-1” in the plea documents is Trump). The one apparent significant new fact — that Trump wrote a reimbursement check while in the White House — is atmospheric but doesn’t materially add to our understanding of a possible campaign finance violation charge against Trump or his potential defenses.

More tantalizing was Cohen’s suggestion that Trump submitted misleading financial statements to financial institutions for various purposes. This could be criminal, but it’s unclear just what is in those statements. “I believe these numbers are misleading,” Cohen testified about the statements. But a meaningful analysis will have to be done by forensic accountants before we can value this aspect of Cohen’s testimony.  

Cohen was not the second coming of John Dean, the White House counsel who provided revelatory testimony against President Nixon during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. Dean’s regret at testifying against Nixon was more convincing than Cohen’s purported disgust with Trump. Dean had a near-photographic memory that enabled him to provide riveting detail — and Dean didn’t look like a thug. Ultimately Dean was fully corroborated by the Oval Office tape recordings.  

Democrats should follow up leads from Cohen’s testimony and, especially, seek corroboration for his assertions wherever it can be found. But Democrats would be making a big mistake if they place any significant political bet, such as impeachment proceedings, that ultimately depends on the credibility of Michael Cohen unless they have persuasive corroboration.        

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.