News & Politics

Is This Mueller's Strategy? Trump's Presidency Could End When Michael Cohen Flips

The president should fear the special counsel's end-game.

Photo Credit: MSNBC (via YouTube)

Sen. Mark Warner isn't known to be a bomb-thrower. In fact, he's more a milquetoast kind of guy. So it was weird when the Virginia Democrat took to the floor of the Senate last December to deliver a strong admonition to the president of the United States, seemingly out of the blue. He said this:

I believe it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement that any attempt by this president to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in an effort to shield them from accountability . . . would be a gross abuse of power. These are red lines, and we simply cannot allow them to be crossed.

That was just a few days before Christmas. Everyone sort of shook their heads, wondering what bee was under his saddle, and then moved on. On Tuesday, we found out what it was all about:

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That tweet is from Warner's communications director, and she's referring to an article in the New York Times by Maggie Haberman and Mark Schmidt. It reported that Trump went ballistic in December after reading that Robert Mueller had subpoenaed bank records from Deutsche Bank pertaining to Trump Organization business and that Trump wanted to fire Mueller. Evidently word got to Warner that Trump was talking about dismissing the special counsel, and Warner tried to head him off at the pass.

As it turned out, that report about Deutsche Bank records was erroneous, and Trump's lawyers were able to talk him down -- but of course that wasn't the first time Trump had stomped around demanding that Mueller be fired. He had ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn do the deed back in June of last year and was only dissuaded when McGahn threatened to quit.

It's also worth wondering just what it was about Deutsche Bank that got Trump so agitated. I would imagine that if the special counsel's office hadn't been interested in Trump-related accounts there already, word of the president's tantrum must have piqued some interest.

In the wake of the raid on Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen on Monday, the idea of Trump shutting down the Mueller investigation -- by whatever means at his disposal -- has become a live issue once again. Reports coming out of the White House have the president, in the words of one confidant, "sitting there bitching and moaning." Others say he's actively considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and paving the way for someone more malleable to rein in the Mueller probe. He is, by all accounts, very upset.

Trump has canceled his scheduled trip to South America, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, ostensibly because John Bolton, his new national security adviser, told him he needed to stay in Washington to handle the Syria matter. This, of course, implies that he's going to be doing something "kinetic" in modern military parlance, commonly known as violence. It's entirely possible he will have done so by the time you read this.

It's also clear that Trump feels overwhelmed by this week's actions by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The federal search warrants served on Trump's personal lawyer, like that earlier report about the search of Deutsche Bank records, seems to have pushed him over the edge. Whenever investigators get too close to Trump's business, he starts talking about firing the investigators.

The possible crimes listed in the search warrants that have been leaked to the press are those pertaining to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal and also Cohen's lucrative and shady New York taxi business. It's reasonable to assume all this has been leaked by Cohen's lawyers, which means that it may be an incomplete list. It's possible that there is evidence of Cohen's involvement in other domestic crimes unrelated to Russia and that Mueller's probe is focused on Cohen's international activity on behalf of the Trump Organization. Certainly Trump is concerned about the former, but it's the overseas affairs that present the greatest danger to his presidency.

Cohen has been quoted saying he would "take a bullet" for Trump, and it seems to be a matter of faith among the press corps that he means it. But that may be overstated, according to one of MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace's sources, who claims that Cohen not only won't take a bullet for the president, he's unlikely to go to jail for him either. Cohen's reaction to the raid lends some credibility to the idea that he won't be as defiant as one might have expected. He told CNN's Don Lemon:

I am unhappy to have my personal residence and office raided. But I will tell you that members of the FBI that conducted the search and seizure were all extremely professional, courteous and respectful. And I thanked them at the conclusion.

Lemon asked Cohen if he was worried about the search, and he said he'd "be lying” if he said he wasn’t. He added, “Do I need this in my life? No. Do I want to be involved in this? No.” He stood by his claim that the payment to Daniels was perfectly legal but said he would “rethink how he handled the payments” because of the impact on his family.

That does not sound like a man who is prepared to go down with the ship. Indeed, the president's closest allies are already calling him a wimp:

The fact that Cohen went on the hated CNN to plead his case is telling. Legal pundits on TV have all said that Cohen could be pressured to testify against Trump in return for leniency on charges that are unrelated to his relationship to the president. That seems to be what's happening in the Manafort and Gates cases, and that could well be how it goes with Cohen.

Cohen may not be as stalwart and loyal as everyone thinks. It's possible that he's just like the boss -- a bully and a bigmouth, but when it comes down to it, he'll always look out for No. 1.

 

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.