Read: What Michael Cohen’s guilty plea means for Trump
Normally, federal prosecutors don’t waste time with this sort of rubble-bouncing. So why would Mueller spend the time and resources on it? Because it tells a story about Trump and his campaign. Because it lays a marker.
It’s not clear whether the Constitution allows Mueller to indict a sitting president. But Department of Justice policy forbids it, and Mueller is a rule-follower. If Mueller thinks that the president has committed a federal crime, his remedy is to recommend impeachment in a report to the attorney general. The attorney general, in turn, is supposed to tell Congress the outcome of the special counsel’s investigation and decide whether the report should be made public. Did you catch the problem? The acting attorney general is Matthew Whitaker, Trump’s creature and a vigorous critic of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller has every reason to expect that Whitaker will suppress the report and limit what he shows to Congress.
A formal report is not, however, Mueller’s only way to tell Congress—and the nation—about his conclusions. The journalist Marcy Wheeler has written extensively about her theory that Mueller will “make his report” through court filings against Trump confederates like Manafort and Cohen. On Monday, Mueller accused Manafort of lying to investigators, breaching his cooperation agreement, and committing further federal crimes; he promised he’d bring the receipts when he filed briefs urging a long sentence. Those sentencing briefs will let Mueller tell the story of how Manafort lied about the Trump campaign—and, by extension, lay out the evidence of what the Trump campaign did.
Peter Beinart: We’re all Michael Cohen
Cohen’s case lets Mueller do the same thing—tell a story, make a report. The information—the charging document to which Cohen pleaded, waiving his right to indictment by grand jury—asserts that the Trump Organization planned a hotel in Russia, communicated with Russian officials about it, and even contemplated sending Trump himself for a visit to Russia well into 2016, contrary to Cohen’s congressional testimony that the plan was abandoned in January 2016. The significance is not just that Cohen lied to Congress. The significance is what he lied about: the fact that Team Trump continued to pursue Russian opportunities well into the campaign. Not only that, but the Information also asserts that Cohen kept Trump (whose identity is not at all concealed as “Individual 1”) and others within the campaign informed about his progress in Russia.
The third remarkable thing about Cohen’s plea was its substance. The president of the United States’ personal lawyer admitted to lying to Congress about the president’s business activities with a hostile foreign power, in order to support the president’s story. In any rational era, that would be earthshaking. Now it’s barely a blip. Over the past two years, we’ve become accustomed to headlines like “President’s Campaign Manager Convicted of Fraud” and “President’s Personal Lawyer Paid for Adult Actress’s Silence.” We’re numb to it all. But these are the sorts of developments that would, under normal circumstances, end a presidency.