Updated at 6:40 p.m.
My first reaction to the no-longer-so-explosive Buzzfeed report that Donald Trump had directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the timing of his negotiations for a Moscow Trump Tower was that, yeah, of course he had.
I love how Trump’s TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani always paints Cohen as a lying sleazebag without noting that Cohen’s utter sleazebagginess is exactly what attracted him to Trump in the first place.
Trump lies. Cohen has spent years lying to further or cover up Trump lies. And lying to Congress, which Cohen has already admitted to, is of a piece with everything else they’ve done together. Why would Cohen possibly tell this particular lie — lying to cover up the fact that negotiations for the never-built Moscow tower were ongoing even after Trump had been nominated for president — without Trump’s urging and approval?
It seemed to be a huge story, with huge potential ramifications, at least until the Mueller team basically shot it down. Suborning perjury, which is what they call this in the law biz, is a serious crime. In fact, in his recent confirmation hearings, would-be Attorney General William Barr was asked about just such a scenario in which a president coaches someone to testify falsely. Barr said it would be a “classic” case of obstructing justice.
I know what you were thinking. Obstructing justice is the classic first step to impeachment. If the story is true, this could be the fabled smoking gun that moves the idea of impeachment from a pipe dream to something much closer to reality.
Maybe. But maybe not.
The question is not only whether the Buzzfeed story is true, but whether it’s provably true. It’s not a smoking gun if Bob Mueller doesn’t have the evidence — emails, caches of incriminating papers, testimony from others at Trump Org, etc.— that Buzzfeed claims he has. (Update: In a remarkable statement, Mueller’s spokesman said much of the Buzzfeed story was inaccurate. Which may be why The New York Times and Washington Post had been unable to move the story forward.) It’s not a smoking gun if Michael Cohen, now on his way to prison, is the only one testifying to this, although Buzzfeed, in its now-contested story, says Mueller knew about Trump’s role before ever talking to Cohen.
Most of all, whatever the truth, there is no smoking gun if the story doesn’t actually move the needle the way we think it should. How many times have people assumed that this is it — this is one thing that even Trump, in all his Trumpiness, can’t overcome? And yet, Trump’s dictum about his base sticking with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue may be the truest thing he’s ever said.
My second reaction to the news was that the Buzzfeed story shows, once again, how little we still know about the evidence Mueller and his Russia probe team have gathered. And how foolhardy it would be to proceed on impeachment before Mueller makes his report, which, despite what any Trump official says, will eventually become public.
For those who want to impeach Trump — and I certainly would agree that he’s avaricious, mendacious, willfully ignorant, a danger to American democracy, a bigoted demagogue and just plain incompetent — they have to know they get only one shot at this.
Look, I’m wary of impeachment in general. It often feels like a coup, as it certainly did when Republicans impeached Bill Clinton, but failed, of course, to remove him from office. I still can’t believe that Trump won, but he did, and unless a significant percentage of the people who voted for him think he must go immediately — meaning that Republican politicians would abandon him — the idea of impeachment feels anti-democratic. I know, the Electoral College that put Trump in office is definitely anti-democratic, but that’s for another day.
For another take on impeachment, you should read this recent piece in The Atlantic, which makes a strong case for its use, starting with the fact that the founders put the impeachment remedy into the Constitution with the full knowledge that, as they say, elections have consequences. They put it there as a process to remove an out-of-control president, for someone like Andrew Johnson (who just avoided being stripped of the presidency), for Richard Nixon (who had to quit because he would be stripped of the presidency) and for Donald Trump (an unnatural disaster from which it may take generations for the country to recover).
There will be hearings, of course, on this matter and related matters. Several Democratic House chairmen have already promised as much. Cohen is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7, but it’s a not a sure thing that his testimony will actually happen.
As Amy Walter of Cook Political Report tweeted, “Buckle up.” The House hearings, she noted, haven’t begun yet. “Every day,” she wrote, “will seem like a month.”
On this day, Trump has gone full diversion mode in announcing a second summit with his North Korean pal Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, we’re a month into an increasingly harmful partial government shutdown, with no end in sight and Trump confounded by every Nancy Pelosi move. The story that Trump may be considering withdrawing the United States from NATO has drawn little attention because, at this point, it’s just one more Trumpian incomprehensibility.
So where does this Buzzfeed story leave us, besides confused? How much is true? Any of it? Maybe we’ll know more if Cohen does testify on Feb. 7. But today, we’re still pretty much where we before: Seeing the end somewhere in the distance but still not sure how or when we get there.