Littwin: How hot does a smoking gun need to be before Trump is truly burned?

Michael Cohen chats with friends near the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City in April following FBI raids on his home. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

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.


  1. How many FBI leaders and past leaders have to be removed, retired, and found in violation of their secret ethics codes, who refuse to testify, or take the 5th, will you decide the smoking gun points in another direction? So far all we know is what we read in MSM and hear on Television, and that is gossip from one so-called reporter, to another, and each then write of hearing it from someone close to the issue, or from two other parties who were not “authorized to speak”. If that is journalism, it is time to go back to basics, and learn a new profession.

  2. As seen often here, but also daily on the Wingnutosphere, there’s always an excuse, a rationalization, a denial/deflection and the inevitable gaslighting…but no acknowledgement of inconvenient facts.

    No logic. No accountability. No, “I’m sorry for being duped by a compromised, half-witted carnival barker because of the blindspot caused by my guns/religion/racism.

    There are millions who will simply find a way to look around/through/beyond whatever Comrade Trump is found to have been a part of. No amount of rational discussion is going to change their minds.

    There are countless examples of similar phenomena. Flat-Eathers, Creationists, QAnoners, Branch Davidians and Trickle Down Economists share this affinity for blind allegiance to factually dubious positions and philosophies.

    Time to dismiss such foolishness and move on before these simpletons do any more damage.

  3. As much as I’d like to see Trump gone don’t want it to happen. Why? That would mean Pence finishing out his term and possibly get elected for another 4 years and maybe 8, or God forbid Trump gets re-elected. Certainly don’t want that. I’d rather roll the dice, let Trump finish out in 4 and get back to some sanity in the White House with a fully controlled Democratic House & Senate.
    PS Have always loved your columns Mike.

  4. Frank2525,

    Enjoyed your comment and hope you’ll continue to contribute.

    As often seen here there are those who refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts. Regardless of how desperately those who dislike our president want it to be true, the explosive Buzzfeed report that President Trump had directed his lawyer to lie to Congress was, well, not so explosive.

    These haters refuse to apologize for being duped by a website apparently on a crusade to “become to the internet what the Rolling Stone is to magazines, what “60 Minutes” is to TV news and what The Boston Globe is to newspapers”.

    These are the same people who believe it’s important to belong to a party in which blind allegiance is encouraged, if not required, regardless of facts and/or behavior.

    Time to dismiss such foolishness and move on before these haters do more damage.

  5. Thanks for popping up to help me prove the point, Comrade Don! Why don’t you share your views on climate change and provide the dear readers with the perfect example of what I like to call The Ostrich Effect.

  6. Jay,

    I’m flattered beyond words!

    I never thought you’d ask my opinion on, well, anything much less something as consequential as climate change.

    But first, do you think Tony Gonzalez will make it to Canton?

  7. I can’t hear you with all that sand in your mouth. It’s been 154 years and you’re still not getting it.

    If you think I’m wrong about how out of touch The Ostriches are, why don’t you wear your MAGA hat and take a stroll around some neighborhoods in the Denver area in which a high percentage of minorities live…Montebello for instance…and try to explain to your countrymen that you’re not a bigot for supporting a bigot.

    Don’t forget your hood…I mean hat. Probably wouldn’t hurt to bring your insurance card with you too.

    It’s all over but the crying. So you have to ask…when Trump resigns, “for the good of the country after being treated so unfairly”, how long before the South starts making statues of him?

    You can’t spell Hatred without the Red Hat.

  8. You poor guy. Here’s a real world lightbulb from me to you

    Read Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer’s Fault Lines. Cheaper than a therapist.

    You’re welcome Shaggy.

  9. Jay,

    I took your advice and visited Montbello. Met a lot of nice people and sold a few hats.

    Thanks! I’m going back today and hope to sell a few more hats. You should come down but don’t mention Hillary.

    It’s hard to take seriously a book that attributes President Ronald Reagan’s popularity (58% of the popular vote in 1984) to media manipulation.

    But the book’s tone does sound very much like your comments: Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Sniff, sniff.

    So do you think Tony Gonzalez will make it to Canton?

  10. I’d have to say my favorite no call hit was the one on Roger “I’m Not A Crook” Strone’s front door this morning.

    CNN is fake news though so I wouldn’t worry about it.

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