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Congress Needs to Ask Michael Cohen: Is the Country Safe with Trump in Office?

The answer might be obvious, but we should hear the question anyhow.
February 26, 2019
Congress Needs to Ask Michael Cohen: Is the Country Safe with Trump in Office?
Michael Cohen gets into an elevator at Trump Tower, December 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For a number of reasons, Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is spot-on in suggesting that Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress could be a watershed moment in the history of the United States.

The facts, indictments, arrests, and guilty pleas collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team are dizzying. When coupled with the 16-plus additional ongoing investigations of Team Trump (not including congressional ones), the narrative around Trump becomes a tangled clump of octopus tentacles that most regular Americans cannot begin to understand. So they mostly tune it out.

But when Cohen testifies publicly on Wednesday, with his Sopranos-like byline and head-hanging demeanor, people will hear a “once upon a time” story that is finally digestible. And it will no doubt contain nuggets of information that only people like Mueller—whose team spoke to Cohen for 70 hours—have been apprised of to date. Think Kavanaugh hearings, folks: millions of voters watching what will no doubt be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare because he will have no control over how that show unfolds.

The Cohen testimony matters not only because it is looking like a political means of accountability is the only feasible one with this president (given DoJ guidance against indicting a sitting president and the special counsel’s regulations prioritizing confidentiality over disclosure).

In that regard, the bottom-line question is: What will it take for Trump loyalists to shift away from tribalism and toward the rule of law and accountability—and thus motivate Republicans in Congress to take their constitutional oversight role seriously (re-election prospects notwithstanding)?

Cohen’s story also matters for the 2020 presidential election because, if Trump gets a second term, he will outrun the general  five-year statute of limitations for federal crimes. If he loses the next presidential race, he could face indictment and jail time the hour he leaves office—assuming the facts are there to charge him with a crime.

But even setting all that aside, Cohen’s testimony matters on the merits, too.

With respect to the Russia investigation, on which Cohen will largely be questioned behind closed congressional doors, the zillion dollar question is this: If there’s indeed no “collusion,” why have so many people close to Trump lied to investigators? Why, in particular, did Cohen lie to Congress about Trump’s negotiation of a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow during the presidential campaign?  

Peeling back that onion, the next question becomes: Does Russia have sufficient “kompromat”—or dirt—on Trump so as to give Putin sway over current American policy? Or was Trump’s effort to broker a Trump Tower Moscow deal done in exchange for anticipated pro-Putin perks once Trump was in office (with Russia’s help)?

If pay-to-play has been at play with the Russians and this White House, then the presidency is compromised, full stop.

A couple of other Cohen narratives bear mentioning. One is the specter of additional audiotapes floating around Cohen’s coffers that could implicate the president. Remember that he taped Trump talking about the hush money payout to Karen McDougal, and has pledged to come to Congress armed with corroborating information.

And remember, there’s Cohen’s indictment and guilty plea for violating campaign finance laws in connection with the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, in which he directly implicated the president. Prosecutors from the Southern District of New York likewise confirmed in a court filing that “Individual 1”—believed to be Trump—directed the payments. In the tsunami of scandals coming from the White House, the president’s role in this crime has been nearly forgotten. But there is no question that commission of a federal felony is an impeachable offense, so Congress needs to know what Cohen knows on this score.

Of course, the president is implicated in a range of other potential wrongdoing involving matters such as the Trump Organization and the Trump inaugural committee, including possible tax and financial crimes that Cohen is reportedly poised to talk about. And if Cohen’s testimony traverses the Trump family “red line”—scooping up Don Jr., Jared, or even Ivanka—we will likely see a response from DJT like none other to date (and that is saying something).

Which brings us to the most critical question that congressional committee members should ask of Michael Cohen: “In your opinion, are the American people safe with this man in office?”  

As all cameras descend on Vietnam for Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, let’s not forget that it was only days ago that lifelong Republican and former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe fingered Trump as a potential Russian asset. He also retold how, when faced with U.S. intelligence regarding North Korea’s missile capabilities, the president reportedly responded, “I don’t care, I believe Putin.”

Perhaps we don’t need Cohen to tell us whether Americans should be complacent about our safety under this presidency, after all. But we do need Congress to ask.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.