We still need answers on those threats Cohen made to protect Trump

We still need answers on those threats Cohen made to protect Trump
© Greg Nash

If the Department of Justice guidance against indicting a sitting president holds, then congressional oversight — and possible impeachment — are the primary mechanisms available for ascertaining whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE committed serious wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise, that would warrant his removal from office. 

Americans of all political stripes must take the ensuing congressional hearings very seriously.

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Talk of impeachment is not hyperbole, mind you. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York already identified Trump as the “Individual 1” who directed his lawyer Michael Cohen to commit a federal felony under the campaign finance laws. Cohen confirmed that account during his congressional testimony on Wednesday, producing a canceled $35,000 check bearing Trump’s signature — a purported reimbursement for Cohen’s illegal hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, with whom Trump allegedly had a sexual affair. Cohen also stated that Trump discussed the payback checks with Cohen at the White House and signaled that Cohen should lie about Trump’s knowledge of the transactions.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOvernight Health Care: DOJ charges doctors over illegal opioid prescriptions | Cummings accuses GOP of obstructing drug pricing probe | Sanders courts Republican voters with 'Medicare for All' | Dems probe funding of anti-abortion group Cummings accuses Oversight Republicans of obstructing drug price probe Schumer staffer-turned-wrestling coach focus of new documentary MORE’s (R-Ohio) cynical response to the serious possibility that the president committed a felony in connection with the 2016 presidential campaign? “I think it’s news we knew about.”

So far, nothing’s been done about such news — other than DOJ’s sending Trump’s former lawyer to prison for three years while his alleged co-conspirator holds the most powerful public office in the world.

Keep in mind that, if impeachment is indeed the only means of holding an incumbent president accountable for misdeeds, that standard is not the equivalent of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that is required to put someone in jail. Trump can be removed for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The Constitution contains no definitions of these terms. But during the 18th-century debates over whether to ratify the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton suggested that impeachment should lie for "those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words, for the abuse or violation of some public trust." Benjamin Franklin viewed impeachment as a means of accounting for “obnoxious” behavior and “the best way . . . for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.”

Surely, this president is in the ballpark.

Amidst the chatter about an overwhelming cache of possible wrongdoing by Team Trump on this front, there is another line of inquiry that House Democrats neglected to pursue.

In response to questioning by Rep. Jackie Spier (D-Calif.), Cohen testified that he “probably” threatened individuals on Trump’s behalf “500 times” over the course of their 10-year relationship. By “threaten,” Cohen said he meant “litigation” or arguments with a “nasty reporter.” No doubt there’s more “there” there, but Speier didn’t follow up.

Cohen entered into the congressional record a letter he sent Fordham University in May of 2015 as executive vice president and special counsel to Donald J. Trump. Cohen’s letter threatens “your institution” with liability “to the fullest extent of the law including damages and criminality” if it were to release records of Trump’s two years there. The letter extends its threats “to any and all of The College Board’s employees, agents, third parties, vendors and any other person or entity acting for or on its behalf.”

This is not the stuff of routine professional correspondence.

Let’s not forget, too, that Stormy Daniels told CBS’ 60 Minutes that a man threatened her on Trump’s behalf in 2011: "I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T-- taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin' all the stuff out, [a]nd a guy walked up on me and said to me, 'Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.' And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, 'That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom.' And then he was gone."

Press reports about Cohen’s bullying tactics are equally ugly. In May 2018, for example, NPR released an audio tape of a conversation he had with a reporter for the Daily Beast related to a story on Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana,  who claimed that Trump “violated” her sexually. Cohen said: "I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we're in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don't have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know . . . So I'm warning you, tread very f--king lightly, because what I'm going to do to you is going to be f--king disgusting. You understand me?"

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Here's the question for Congress and the American people: Of the approximately 500 other people Cohen threatened at Trump’s behest, were Daniels — who is the subject of Trump’s apparent felony — and her baby daughter among them? In addition to dangling civil litigation and possible criminal referrals to silence Trump skeptics, did Cohen threaten any of his targets with physical violence — or hire others to do so on behalf of his boss?

Now that Trump is president of the United States, threats of criminal retaliation are no longer vapid. The full force of federal law enforcement and criminal justice system lies in his chain of command. And to this day, he is not shy about threatening his critics — including Cohen and his family. 

What might Hamilton and Franklin daresay about all of this? That Congress must carry on with its work, my friends, for the good of the republic.

Kim Wehle is a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Her forthcoming book, “How to Read the Constitution and—Why,” will be published in June of 2019. Follow her on Twitter @kim_wehle.