BuzzFeed News reports that Donald Trump instructed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about his dealings with Russia.
Lying to Congress is a crime. Asking someone to lie to Congress is also a crime. The relevant legal terms are “suborning perjury” and “witness tampering,” both of which fall under the more general heading: obstruction of justice. If BuzzFeed’s reporting is accurate, the news is a nuclear bombshell.
Given Trump’s remarkable survival skills, it is extraordinarily perilous to make predictions about his future. But if I were forced to wager, my bet is that he will be evicted from the White House within six months if not much sooner.
The first article of impeachment in the congressional proceedings against Richard Nixon contained a clause concerned with exactly the same conduct at issue here: “approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counseling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings.” In the face of evidence showing exactly that kind of criminal behavior, Nixon opted to resign.
Of course, some not-so-small details might still sway things in Trump’s favor. For one thing, Michael Cohen is not exactly renowned as a truth-teller. In November he pleaded guilty to, among other crimes, lying to Congress while under oath. And over the course of his career as a lawyer, lying on behalf of his only client — Donald Trump — seems to have been his legal specialty. Cohen’s credibility on the witness stand or in congressional testimony will be absolutely zero.
It is thus only logical that in his first reaction to the BuzzFeed story, Trump tweeted that Cohen was “lying to reduce his jail time!” Likewise, Trump’s spokesman Hogan Gidley dismissed a Fox News query about the BuzzFeed story by declaring: “I’m not going to give any credence or credibility to Michael Cohen.”
This may be logical, but it is also utterly lame. For one thing, the BuzzFeed story does not come directly from Cohen. It is sourced to “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
For another thing, Cohen’s testimony, when it comes, will not fall or stand on its own. According to BuzzFeed, “the special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
In other words, there appears to be a corroborating paper trail a mile long. Cohen’s interviews with the special counsel only confirmed what investigators had already learned.
Trump might hope that “his” Justice Department will come to his aid. After all, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was selected by Trump to replace the recused Jeff Sessions precisely because he promised to strangle the Mueller investigation in its cradle. In a 2017 interview, he described how Trump or a Trump subordinate could effectively terminate the Mueller probe by defunding it. Whitaker is just that subordinate and is now in command of the office overseeing the Mueller probe.
But Whitaker’s ability to control the course of events is severely limited. First and foremost, he has to act within the law if he himself does not want to get caught up in the obstruction of justice. Beyond that, the clock is ticking loudly on his term in office. Trump has nominated William Barr as attorney general, and in all likelihood he will be confirmed by the Senate within days or weeks.
In confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr was asked a highly relevant question by Sen. Amy Klobuchar: “The President persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction, is that right?” she asked. Barr’s one-word answer — “yes” — has not left him any wiggle room.
If the facts are as BuzzFeed reports, Barr will not be Trump’s rescuer.
The strongest cane on which Trump can lean is the Republican-controlled Senate. If Trump is impeached by the House and then tried in the Senate, it will require two-thirds of that Republican-controlled body to convict him and remove him from office. Up to now, the Republicans have been slavish in their devotion to the President. Will that slavishness persist as irrefutable evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors comes into public view? Or will enough Republicans stand for the rule of law?
Republican behavior over the last two years hardly instills confidence that they will rise to the occasion. Perhaps I am being foolishly optimistic about the many disgraced Republican toadies and cowards now in office, but in the face of unambiguous evidence of presidential law-breaking, I am betting that they will. Whether my guess is right or wrong, it is the great question upon which hangs nothing less than the continuation of the American constitutional system as we know it.