Analysis: Why Michael Cohen’s Guilty Plea Matters [Opinion]

Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Donald Trump.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Revelations made Thursday morning by President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen are blowing up headlines — and news offices — from coast-to-coast. But what does it mean in the grand scheme of things?

It turns out, plenty — but a lot of it is still speculative at this point. Nothing is definitive, but Cohen’s guilty plea is likely causing a lot of headaches in the Trump White House.

There’s the timeline to consider. Cohen’s guilty plea indicated that Trump had continued trying to negotiate a deal between his company and Russia to build a Trump Tower in that nation’s capital city of Moscow. Up until this point, Cohen and Trump have tried to say that those negotiations ended early in 2016, before the Iowa caucus (the presidential election season’s official starting date) took place.

It turns out, as Cohen alleged in his plea statement Thursday, Trump was trying to negotiate that deal as late as June 2016 — a time when he was securing the official Republican Party nomination for president. As MSNBC’s Justice and Security Analyst Matthew Miller pointed out in a Twitter post later on Thursday, a lot was going on at the same time.

“So during the summer of 2016, Trump tried to cut a business deal with Russia while publicly attacking NATO and praising Putin, asking Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, and while his son and senior staffers met in secret with Russian government intermediaries,” Miller wrote.

Trump has continuously tried to say that he has very few connections to Russia at all. “I don’t have any deals with Russia. I had Miss Universe there a couple of years ago other than that no,” he said in October of 2016, according to CNN — just one month before election day, and just a few months following the supposed end of conversations he had with Russia during the summer.

Lying while on the campaign trail is not a crime, of course, but it is an example of why the electorate cannot trust the president. His words don’t match up with reality. Public evidence simply contradicts many of the assertions that he makes.

What would be criminal, however, is if Trump instructed Cohen to lie to Congress under oath. If Trump told his lawyer at the time to say negotiations ended in January 2016 (when they really ended nearly half a year later), then Trump could face serious charges of obstruction of justice.

We also don’t know myriad other items. For instance, is Cohen’s guilty plea on Thursday backed up with documents that Cohen is supplying to Mueller? And did the special counsel ask Trump about when his business negotiations with Russia ended, and did Trump — in his written response to Mueller that he recently submitted back to the special counsel — implicate himself by saying otherwise?

All of these questions center upon the president. But there are other actors in this saga to consider. That’s why the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is combing through testimonies given over the past year and a half, to see if any other statements from witnesses therein are misleading or outright lies.

Some statements have already been given to Mueller from the committee. “[R]eferrals have been made from our committee to the special prosecutor, but we’re not going to talk about any individuals,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said, according to reporting from NBC News.

Republicans on the committee are also worried about the possibility that some witnesses may have lied to them. “[The Senate Committee] made referrals where appropriate. I am very glad the special counsel is pursuing those who mislead members of Congress,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said.

A lot isn’t publicly known about the Russia investigation at this time. Most of the evidence and statements collected by Mueller and his team of investigators hasn’t been announced, and it’s likely we’re still mostly in the dark about what they’re actually looking for.

Still, the plea made by Cohen on Thursday is demonstrative of what direction Mueller is heading in. And it’s clear to see that direction points squarely at the president — and other individuals very close to him.