Sure, it was a big day on Tuesday, but giving Michael Cohen the all-cap headline may have buried the lead.
It’s my pardon, and I’ll try if I want to. You would try, too, if it happened to you.
Yes, the Michael Cohen story is big, but we are not certain that it warranted the Men Walk on Moon headline treatment it got in The New York Times. If we learned anything from the Paul Manafort trial, it is that the courtroom testimony of an utterly corrupt serial liar who has just copped a plea can be eviscerated by a decent attorney. Putting Rick Gates on the stand actually weakened the government case.
Michael Cohen is in the process of auditioning for leniency in his sentencing, and he wants to make sure that his Broadway debut is a smash. That personal touch that he was under no obligation to add to his allocution – “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” – was crafted with every liberal media outlet in mind, with words and music by Lanny Davis.
But if you want to know what has Donald Trump seriously agitated, compare his reaction to the two seismic court cases decided on Tuesday.
All Michael Cohen got from the Big Orange was a sarcastic late morning tweet: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Ssssst- burn!
Paul Manafort, on the other hand, was treated like a returning prisoner of war who had refused to buckle under the relentless torture of a hostile adversary, but, ah… who is not John McCain. Trump gave Manafort much better tweet: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
What gives? Why the shade for Cohen and the adulation of Manafort?
Trump’s own tweets give a rudimentary explanation: he perceives that Manafort remained loyal to him, and the Cohen sold him out. For a man who only cares about personal loyalty, that may be enough of an explanation.
But we here at BTRTN always think that there’s a bit more going on.
We suspect that this differing treatment reflects the relative degree of Kryptonite that Trump sees in the potential testimony of the two men.
If you listen to Donald Trump’s current stump speech, you will hear him trash Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “biased witch hunt” that, after all this time, has found “no collusion.” It is his mantra: “no collusion, no collusion, no collusion!” It is as if Donald Trump himself is setting out to narrowly define the only possible finding that should be of any consequence, the only act that rises to the level of a “high crime or misdemeanor.” In Trump’s world view, if Mueller were to find evidence of money-laundering, bank fraud, or that he paid for the silence of a porn star, none of that should matter. That is not what Mueller was charged to find. Evidence of those crimes would be tossed aside by Trump as evidence of the “witch hunt.” You can practically hear him: “Biased Mueller was supposed to investigate collusion, and couldn’t find any, so he is trying to reverse the 2016 election by searching through ancient history and digging up other things that don’t matter to the American people.”
Donald Trump is essentially trying to define what constitutes an impeachable offense in as narrow a manner as possible: evidence that he had first hand knowledge of and proven participation in an conspiracy to collude with a hostile foreign power in a manner that changed the outcome of an election.
And that is why he is much more focused on Manafort than Cohen.
It is reasonable to believe that if there was a direct conspiracy between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, Trump was smart enough to never be directly involved. Indeed, it is likely that the only communication from the campaign to Trump about any such activity came through the two people with the most direct access to Trump: the head of his campaign, and his son. Manafort, and Donald Trump, Jr.
Trump may have long since promised Paul Manafort that if he kept his mouth shut throughout any and all legal proceedings, he would receive a pardon. And Trump has every reason to believe that his son would never, ever turn on him.
In other words, there are only two people on earth who could implicate Trump on the only thing that he views to be an impeachable offense. As of this minute, both are keeping up their end of the bargain.
But Paul Manafort has been locked away for a long time now, and whatever assurance he received from Donald Trump about a pardon must seem very shaky. Manafort is now looking at a very long stint in prison, and his second trial has not even started yet.
Right now, this minute, he can still run to Robert Mueller’s team and sing about exactly what he told Trump about Russia… the meetings, the phone calls, and the substance. The June 9 Trump Tower meeting and any follow-up. The change in the Republican Platform at the convention. Anything and everything. He was there. He was in the room where it happens.
Or he can sweat out another trial and hope that this president, who now has a tracking record of throwing people under the bus, will keep his word.
Over in the other courtroom, Michael Cohen is overtly implicating Trump in a crime that also represents an illegal conspiracy against the United States to influence the outcome of a Presidential election. Trump’s bet, however, is simple. He doubts that the evenly divided United States Senate is going find the two-thirds majority to remove him from office simply because he paid for the silence of a porn star.
He might be right.
At the end of the day, an equally divided U.S. Senate did not reach the two-thirds majority needed to remove Bill Clinton from office because he had sex with an intern.
In both cases, federal law was broken. Bill Clinton lied under oath. Donald Trump violated campaign finance law. But in both cases, the likelihood is that America would group both of these violations as “personal” transgressions that did not rise to the level of removal from office.
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, has been all over the cable news hinting that Cohen has information that would “be of interest” to Mueller’s investigation, but he’s been walking that one backward as much as forward. He seems to imply that Cohen has information of value about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting, but Michel Cohen did not even attend. And Davis took great pains to emphatically deny to Chuck Todd on MTP Daily that Michael Cohen was ever in Prague – which was the only aspect of the famous Steele dossier that tied Cohen to Russia. Lanny Davis seemed to be going out of his way to convey that Cohen was not involved in any potential Russian collusion issues, which would seem to be arguing that he is of less value to Mueller… not more.
In short, Trump may be concerned about what Cohen knows about past Trump business dealings and hush money, but he doesn’t think Cohen knows much about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. And that is the only thing that Trump worries would actually rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
So there you have the tale of two tweets.
In the Cohen tweet, Trump was essentially sending word to his base that he wasn’t worried about his former lawyer.
But in the Manafort tweet, he was talking directly to his now convicted former campaign manager: “Don’t worry, big guy. I still love you. Don’t forget the promise I made. Stay with me, baby.”
So Trump’s only question now is when to issue Manafort’s pardon, and the logic is sooner rather than later. Much sooner. Maybe in the next few days.
First, timing. Trump figures that America is still not really paying attention to all of this in August. Get it out of the way fast. Don’t let it drift into the heart of the mid-term debate.
Second: Trump has still seen absolutely no evidence that Republican leaders or his base would ever dare turn on him. He may be feeling that they would abandon him if he fired Mueller, but he will take his chance on this one. He hasn’t encountered any spine yet… why would he this time?
Third: Trump loves the pardon power, because it is his and his alone to wield. He does not need permission from anyone, and he does not need Congress to ratify it. It is one of the few things in the presidency that allows him to feel like the totalitarian ruler he wants to be. It’s his pardon, and he’ll try if he wants to.
Fourth: Trump knows that his base loves anything that drives the left bonkers. Trump would love to pardon Manafort just so his base could watch the left wing media landscape explode in a frenzy of legal scholars screaming “constitutional crisis” to Anderson Cooper. It's red state red meat.
Finally, Trump knows that he can’t afford to let Manafort to twist in the wind. Sure, Manafort took his chance on the trial, and it actually went far better than it should have. But eight guilty counts is still a ton of jail time, and Manafort may be getting edgy. Note that his lawyers did not come out of the court room and announce that they were going to “appeal this decision.” They said that they were going to “evaluate all options.” They may as well have been posting directly on Trump’s Twitter feed… “Hey, Mr. President, if you are going to pardon Manafort, NOW IS THE TIME!”
Sure, those legal scholars will point out that a person who has been granted a presidential pardon thereby loses their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. They warn Trump that if he pardons Manafort, then Mueller can force Manafort to testify under oath, with hefty perjury charges hanging over his every word.
But if the only topic of such testimony that matters is the substance of any conversation that may have taken place between Trump and Manafort about Russian collusion, it sure appears that Manafort could navigate that with a few well chosen invocations of the time-honored “as best as I can recall,” and a few outright lies. The only other potential witnesses to such conversations are both named Donald Trump... senior and junior. What, me worry?
And if Mueller slams Manafort with a perjury charge, guess who gets another pardon?
So tune in.
Sometime in the next few days, Donald Trump may decide to roll the dice.
“It’s my pardon and I’ll try if I want to.”
Hey, you would try, too -- if the utter implosion of your presidency was happening to you.
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