On Thursday evening, CNN’s shocking report that Michael Cohen claimed that Donald Trump had previous knowledge of his son’s infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Clinton-dirt-peddling, Kremlin-connected lawyer opened a new front in the president’s escalating battle with his former attorney. It also afforded election experts, jurisprudential scholars, and Russia saga devotees a new kernel for their various theories.
If Cohen’s allegations were true, had the president effectively crossed a red line that would entail collusion? Was his presidency compromised? Or was CNN reporting what many already assumed, despite the president and Donald Trump Jr.’s various protestations? “It was never plausible that Trump didn’t know,” Bob Bauer, who served as White House general counsel under Barack Obama, told me. “The notion that a foreign government promising to bring groundbreaking ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton to the campaign would be invited for a meeting, without running the entire suggestion by Donald Trump, at least informing and most likely getting his explicit approval, was never believable for a moment.” Asha Rangappa, a former F.B.I. counter-intelligence agent, went one step further. If Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting, it would represent “the first direct tie that we have linking Trump to what the Russians were trying to do. Like, it wasn’t just a bunch of coffee boys doing things under him.”
Trump critics have long-doubted Trump’s assertions of ignorance regarding the meeting. They point to a series of calls Don Jr. made to a blocked number before and after the meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. And then there was the speech Trump gave on June 7, days before the Trump Tower meeting, during which he announced a “major speech” he telegraphed would reveal damaging information about his then political rival. “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” Trump said. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend, who knows.”
If Trump knew about the Veselnitskaya meeting back in June 2016—not in July 2017 as the president has said—these actions can be viewed in an entirely different light. “The Trump people have been pushing that there is just a kind of randomness to all these Russia-Trump campaign contacts,” Bauer told me. “But in fact, once you have the candidate directly involved effectively in communications with the Russians about the campaign . . . There is something quite concerted, and it is right in the middle of it to extract the maximum benefit of the Russian offer of campaign assistance.”
Whether Trump’s alleged behavior suggests any criminality, however, is a bit of an open question among legal experts I spoke with. “I’m not sure it’s dispositive of anything. It would demonstrate knowledge by Trump of the interactions between campaign and Russians,” one D.C. defense attorney, who has worked on previous White House ethics cases, told me. But this person added, “There is no specific crime circumscribing such activity by itself. Without more—like some type of campaign-law violation—it’s just one more fact indicating awareness of the efforts by outsiders to assist the campaign.”
As I reported when Don Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya was first revealed, the promise of compromising information on Clinton as the pretense for the gathering raised the possibility that the Trump campaign violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. Under the statute, it is a felony to solicit or accept a campaign donation from a foreign national or foreign government. And in the political world, where opposition research is a highly valuable commodity, dirt on Clinton could constitute an “in-kind” contribution. Of course, the White House has denied that the Russians actually delivered on their promise, arguing that the meeting is therefore irrelevant. That argument could hold water, according to William Jeffress, a D.C. lawyer who worked on the Valerie Plame leak case. “Cohen’s account undercuts the ‘no collusion’ mantra,” he told me. “But accepting an offer of dirt on Clinton even from Russia would not be a crime without knowledge it was unlawfully obtained.”
Bauer, however, disagrees. “There is a direct federal campaign finance violation involved here. The law is very clear that foreign nationals may not spend money to influence and election. It is an extremely broad prohibition, and Congress has amended it to tighten it a couple of times,” he countered. “If the Russians were in engaged in a criminal conspiracy to violate the campaign finance law and spent money to violate that statute, then U.S. citizens are liable for supporting, encouraging, helping direct and shape that activity under both campaign finance laws, which prohibit U.S. citizens from giving that kind of assistance to a foreign national, and the criminal law that imposes aiding and abetting liability.”
But, really, the debate hinges on the definition of collusion. Trump’s legal team has dismissed the notion that there is such a crime. “For something to be a crime, there has to be a statute that you claim is being violated,” former White House lawyer Jay Sekulow told Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker. “There is not a statute that refers to criminal collusion. There is no crime of collusion.”
But Rangappa suggested that the Trump campaign may still have colluded, despite this. “Collusion does not necessarily have to be criminal,” she said. “Collusion is secretly conspiring or working with a foreign power to help them in their covert operation.” Bauer, too, suggested that collusion could be defined more broadly. “Collusion is a shorthand, right? But it definitely covers technical offenses. It includes U.S. citizen aid and support to a foreign national trying to influence a federal election, which is illegal,” he told me.
Beyond the collusion question, a number of characters in Trumpworld could go down on a charge with an undisputed definition—namely, perjury. Any way you cut it, someone is lying about the Trump Tower meeting. “He wasn’t aware of it,” Don Jr. testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, referring to his father’s knowledge of the meeting. “And, frankly, by the time anyone was aware of it, which was summer of this year, as I stated earlier, I wouldn’t have wanted to get him involved in it because it had nothing to do with him.” If CNN’s report is correct, Don Jr. would have perjured himself. Then there is Cohen himself. A source familiar with Cohen’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee testimony told CNN that he did not testify that Trump had advance knowledge of the meeting, but it is unclear from the report whether he denied that the president did.
For Trump, the stakes of his potential interview with Mueller also went up. “If Cohen is telling the truth, there is literally no way that Trump can sit down with Mueller for an interview,” Rangappa told me. “Trump can’t get away with a lie in front of Mueller. And if he lies to Mueller, then he is done. . . . He is definitely on the line for a crime.”