Attorneys for Michael Cohen have submitted a memo to House Democrats that purports to have evidence that President Donald Trump truly did collude with Russia in his 2016 presidential campaign. The document, however, contains nothing of the sort. It comes off as a transparent attempt to make Cohen seem useful to Democrats’ investigations of the president so that he can delay his prison sentence, which is set to begin in May.
The memo claims to include two sets of information. The first pertains to “Trump’s involvement in a conspiracy to collude with Russian government intervention in his favor during the 2016 presidential campaign and obstruct justice through lies and cover-up.” The second is for “Other felony crimes committed by Trump before and after he became president (emphasis in original).”
The memo goes on to discuss what it calls circumstantial evidence of a Trump/Russia conspiracy, but it merely repeats events that had already been widely reported before it was announced that Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report alleged no such conspiracy. The first “circumstantial fact” is the Trump Tower meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. That meeting, as was reported, was set up because a Russian attorney promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. However, the meeting ended up being fruitless. In order for it to have been evidence of illegal activity, there had to have been an alleged crime in the first place. Merely hoping to get information isn’t enough, and even acquiring information from a foreign national is fine if it’s paid for, as Democrats did with Christopher Steele.
Similarly, President Trump’s initial response to a report about the meeting may have raised questions, but there is no evidence that it was criminal. The memo also brings up Trump’s alleged knowledge of Roger Stone‘s contacts with WikiLeaks, but no evidence has connected that to a Russia/Trump conspiracy.
Finally, the memo discusses “Trump and his advisors encouraging Cohen to lie to Congress about Moscow Trump Tower contacts through June 2016 after Trump is the putative GOP nominee.” It claims that Trump really did direct Cohen to lie about the timing of negotiations for the Moscow Project. This, despite Cohen’s statements to the contrary. When Cohen appeared before Congress this year, he said that Trump did not instruct him to lie to Congress. He did say that Trump’s behavior indicated that he didn’t want Cohen talking about business with Russia, but there was no specific direction to commit any crime.
The memo twists Cohen’s words to say that Cohen was “in effect, instructed to lie,” and quotes Cohen’s defense attorney as saying it was a “directive.” From the memo:
Overall strong inferences from Trump and associates’ overall and intense effort to persuade Cohen to commit crime of lying to congress. Cohen explained that he was, in effect, instructed to lie about the January 31, 2016 date through the use of Trump code words that could only be interpreted as an instruction or “directive” (as Cohen’s defense attorney put it, without public objection by the Southern District of New York prosecutors) to cover-up the fact that Cohen had been in contact with Russians during most of the presidential campaign, from the day of the Iowa caucuses, February 1, through all the primaries and caucuses and until June 2016, after Trump had become the putative Republican nominee by assembling a majority of delegates.
BuzzFeed News had previously published a report about how Trump supposedly “directed” Cohen to lie. This prompted a rare statement from Mueller’s office saying that the report was “not accurate.” Cohen’s testimony confirmed that it was inaccurate. Now, however, Cohen’s lawyers are using the defense attorney’s wording to show how it was similar to BuzzFeed’s wording, seemingly to indicate that both of them have it right.
It’s important to remember that words have meaning, especially when it comes to the law. If President Trump had explicitly directed Cohen to lie, that would be a crime and people would be right to be up in arms over it. Indeed, that was how BuzzFeed’s report was initially received. Mueller’s statement and Cohen’s testimony, however, showed that this was not the case. Cohen’s lawyers can “infer” all they want and say what the “effect” of Trump behavior was, but without an actual “directive” it is difficult to bring a case against him.
So why send a memo to House Democrats that doesn’t really add much of anything? Because the Dems are currently investigating as much about Trump as they possibly can. If Cohen can convince them that he can be of help, maybe just maybe he can use that to stay out of prison a while longer. Right now, he’s set to begin a three-year sentence on May 6, just over a month form now. He already got that pushed off from his original date in March. Based on this new memo, I wouldn’t bet on him being able to delay it any further.
Ronn Blitzer is the Senior Legal Editor of Law&Crime and a former New York City Prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @RonnBlitzer.
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.