Guilty plea isn’t proof of Rus­sian col­lu­sion

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - VIEWPOINTS - DE­BRA J. SAUN­DERS COM­MEN­TARY

ON his way to catch Air Force One on Thurs­day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump shared his thoughts about Michael Co­hen, his one­time per­sonal lawyer, who pleaded guilty that morn­ing to ly­ing to Con­gress about ne­go­ti­a­tions dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for a pos­si­ble Trump Tower in Moscow.

Trump said: (1) it was no se­cret he was in­ter­ested in putting a Trump Tower in Moscow, (2) as a pri­vate cit­i­zen, he had ev­ery right to build in Rus­sia, so (3) there was no rea­son for Co­hen to lie to Con­gress — and if he did lie, it had noth­ing to do with the pres­i­dent.

Trump has a point. As Brad Blake­man, a lawyer in Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’ ad­min­is­tra­tion, told the Re­view-Jour­nal, Trump’s ac­tions were le­gal. Trump wasn’t pres­i­dent in 2016, and he didn’t know that he would win. He had ev­ery right to push to keep his busi­ness go­ing.

“He was hedg­ing his bets,” Blake­man said. “I don’t know why Co­hen had to lie about it.”

The other big point: Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has a pen­chant for win­ning guilty pleas from Trump as­so­ciates who have lied to au­thor­i­ties. But from what Amer­ica has seen, he has not made the case that the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia to win the 2016 elec­tion.

Co­hen’s guilty plea for ly­ing about Trump’s flir­ta­tion with build­ing in Moscow at least has a Rus­sian an­gle. That’s much closer than the con­vic­tion of for­mer Trump cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort, who was found guilty on charges of tax eva­sion and bank fraud as far back as 2010, long be­fore he worked for Trump. Ditto co-de­fen­dant Rick Gates, who cut a plea deal to re­duce his sen­tence in ex­change for tes­ti­mony against Manafort.

There of­ten has been a po­lit­i­cal tinge to Mueller’s ac­tions. In Au­gust, Co­hen pleaded guilty to tax eva­sion and bank fraud — charges that had noth­ing to do with Trump. But he also pleaded guilty to a cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tion re­lated to a pay­ment to a porn ac­tress that was sup­posed to buy her si­lence over her al­leged in­volve­ment with Trump in 2006, as well as an im­proper pay­ment to a for­mer Play­boy play­mate.

To crit­ics on the right, Mueller’s de­ci­sion to charge this sor­did porn-ac­tress pay­off as a cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tion was a stretch. In 2012, jurors did not find 2004 Demo­cratic run­ning mate John Ed­wards guilty when he faced sim­i­lar charges be­cause a big donor paid to cover up an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair with a cam­paign videog­ra­pher who gave birth to his child.

Max Bergmann of the left-lean­ing Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress ar­gued that Trump’s mis­lead­ing state­ments about not hav­ing busi­ness in Rus­sia are damn­ing. Co­hen, he added, “has ad­mit­ted to per­jury” about talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

“So I think that one of the other things that comes of this is: Michael Co­hen was clearly will­ing to lie to Con­gress. The ques­tion in my mind is who else was will­ing to lie to Con­gress?”

“It seems un­likely to me that all of that co­op­er­a­tion is not re­veal­ing use­ful ev­i­dence,” for­mer U.S. At­tor­ney for Ne­vada Greg-

ory Brower ob­served.

At a re­cent Ya­hoo fo­rum, for­mer Trump White House chief strate­gist Steve Ban­non mocked Mueller for seem­ing to hang his case on louche hanger-on Roger Stone, birther Jerome Corsi and Wik­iLeaks founder Juil­ian As­sange. “I mean, how se­ri­ous is this?”

Blake­man stressed that Trump did not bring most of the cast of nutty char­ac­ters caught up in Mueller’s net — Co­hen, Manafort, Gates and Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, a for­mer vol­un­teer cam­paign for­eign pol­icy ad­viser who pleaded guilty to ly­ing to fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors about his link to Rus­sian of­fi­cials — into his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn, who also pleaded guilty to ly­ing to the feds, is the ex­cep­tion — and he was fired for ly­ing to Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence dur­ing his first month at the White House.

When Mueller is done, the por­trait

of those around Trump, Blake­man added, is “go­ing to be un­flat­ter­ing. It’s go­ing to say that the pres­i­dent had peo­ple in his or­bit that were un­sa­vory.” In part, Blake­man at­tributes Trump’s low-re­pute hires to his de­ci­sion to run for pres­i­dent on a shoe­string bud­get.

So even if Trump emerges from the Mueller probe ab­solved on the ques­tion of Rus­sian col­lu­sion, as I think will hap­pen, that out­come would come at a price. You can’t ques­tion the cred­i­bil­ity of Trump’s ac­cusers with­out cring­ing at his choice of fix­ers and free­lancers.

Trump can ar­gue that it was per­fectly le­gal for him to flirt with build­ing a sky­scraper in Rus­sia while he ran for pres­i­dent be­cause he re­mained a pri­vate cit­i­zen. But was it good for the coun­try? Did it en­hance or hurt Trump’s cred­i­bil­ity within the Krem­lin?

Tim Brin­ton

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