Will Congress parry like it’s 1998?
Given attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas and his testimony linking President Donald Trump to felonies, the GOP members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives might look to a past Republican Congress for precedent and guidance on what to do next.
Or perhaps they’d rather not.
In 1998 the House of Representatives, in apparent defense of some high ideals, voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, on two charges — perjury and obstruction. (Or was it just politics?) The impeachment was the fruit of an investigation, conducted by Independent Counsel Ken Starr, which began about an entirely different matter and dragged on for years. Starr had set out to determine if Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton were tied criminally to a crooked Arkansas land deal — Whitewater.
Failing to produce that evidence, Starr turned to Clinton’s denial during a deposition in a civil matter that he did not have sexual relations with intern Monica Lewinsky and Clinton’s efforts to cover up the affair. Clinton’s lie and cover-up, cited by Starr in his investigation, led to the impeachment.
The Senate subsequently failed to convict and Clinton finished his term.
Flash forward to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign. It is not over and already has produced far more criminal indictments and guilty verdicts than Starr did.
Cohen is now among them.
Like the Starr findings on Clinton, the prosecution of Cohen was not tied to the central focus of the Mueller investigation. Like the Clinton matter, it involves the cover-up of sexual exploits embarrassing to a president — this time Trump.
Cohen pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to several counts of tax evasion. However, it was the two guilty pleas tied to the violation of campaign finance law — felonies — that conjure up the potential for impeachment, particularly given the precedent of two decades ago.
Trump’s former attorney confessed to paying 150,000 payment that American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, made to Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy her story about her alleged romps with Trump. American Media then killed the story, keeping it from pre-election headlines. Federal law prohibits corporations from coordinating political spending with campaigns.
Under oath, Cohen told the court he did these things “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office … for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
That candidate was Trump. Directing and coordinating a crime makes you a criminal.
It’s possible Cohen could have lied under oath about Trump’s involvement. He is an unsavory character. But logic suggests he was working at Trump’s behest. And he and federal prosecutors may well have evidence to back up the claims. Already an audio recording has surfaced which appears to capture Cohen and Trump talking about one of the deals.
When Mueller releases his findings, the House may have far more to consider than Trump’s alleged connection to these felonies. So maybe they will have more to work with and won’t be tested on the Clinton precedent. Perhaps there will be a new Congress by then.
The guilty pleas by Cohen Tuesday were not the only reminder of the company the president keeps. Also Tuesday, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, another target of the Mueller investigation, was found guilty of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and a single count of failing to disclose a foreign bank account.
The judge declared a mistrial on 10 other counts, so they remain hanging over Manafort’s head. He faces a second trial on additional charges that include obstruction and money laundering.
In hiring Manafort, Trump, who ran on a pledge to “drain the swamp,” retained the ultimate swamp monster to run his campaign. Prosecutors presented evidence that Ukrainian oligarchs used back channels to steer $60 million to Manafort to direct the campaign of Russian puppet Viktor F. Yanukovych. Elected president of Ukraine in 2010, Yanukovych was driven from office by a popular uprising.
While not a direct tie to the Russian collusion probe, it is certainly interesting. And Mueller, we suspect, is not finished pressuring this dirty swamp monster to come clean about what he knows.