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Editorials of The Times

Posted November 29, 2018 11:11 p.m. EST

Cohen Lied. Here’s Why It Matters

When all is said and done, the April raids by federal prosecutors targeting Michael Cohen’s office and other premises in Manhattan may be seen as a turning point for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Those raids — and Cohen’s own malfeasance — opened the door for Robert Mueller, on Thursday, to convict Trump’s longtime loyalist and personal lawyer of lying to Congress. What the special counsel has gathered since the raids provides the clearest proof yet to the American public that Mueller’s inquiry — derided by the president and his allies as an aimless fishing expedition — is rooted in the law and facts. To those critics, this latest move was surely meant to send another message as well: He’s not about to back down.

Cohen’s guilty plea, filed in the same federal courthouse where he already faces a steep sentence for orchestrating campaign-finance and other crimes, brings Mueller’s operation to New York, the heart of the president’s business empire and the self-made myth that propels it. If there’s anything that plea exposes, it’s that Trump’s mind never strayed far from his business dealings and how to further enrich himself and his family, even as he was campaigning for the nation’s highest office.

The facts to which Cohen admitted on Thursday don’t establish that Trump conspired with Russian efforts to win him the election, but they refute Trump’s frequent, vehement claim that he had nothing to do with Russia as he sought the White House. It was that falsehood Cohen sought to protect by lying himself. “I made these statements to be consistent with” Trump’s “political messaging,” he said in court.

Well into the presidential race and as Trump’s chances of becoming the Republican nominee appeared certain, Cohen worked hard to get into the good graces of the Russian government — procuring meetings with high-ranking officials, planning trips for himself and Trump, and briefing the then-candidate and his “family members” on his progress.

These revelations, which Cohen concealed or obfuscated from congressional investigators conducting their own look into Russian election interference, put Trump at the center of an elaborate operation to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Reporting by BuzzFeed News, published in May, had previously detailed a concerted push to bring the Trump real estate brand to Moscow’s skyline. The plan, in Cohen’s own words, was to fly Trump to the Russian capital “once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”

The trove of documents and communications that are the foundation of BuzzFeed’s report now appear to be in Mueller’s possession. Before long, they could form the basis for additional criminal charges against or inquiries into other Trump figures who have sought to minimize their own Kremlin connections, such as Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort.

If investigating the Trump Organization and his business dealings was a “red line” for Mueller not to cross — as Trump told The Times last year — the special counsel blew right past it with Thursday’s charges. And with good reason: The conduct Cohen has attested to in his plea agreement and in open court falls directly within the special counsel’s mandate to pursue “any links” or “coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

Is there a clearer link to Russia than the involvement of President Vladimir Putin himself — as court documents now show — in a project meant to garner riches and a new edifice to a future American president?

Mueller’s interest in criminalizing lies and misdirections “within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of the Government of the United States,” as Cohen’s charging document states, is an admonition to anyone who has testified on Russia before Congress — a body, despite its recent fecklessness, that, at least to Mueller, is meant to provide oversight of the executive branch on behalf of all Americans.

“I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” was how Trump explained away Cohen’s conviction Thursday. It’s a deflection that the president will rely on again, if history is any indication: Hours before Cohen appeared in court, the president was, for the umpteenth time, ranting and raving about Mueller, accusing him of searching for crimes that don’t exist.

But, as Cohen’s guilty plea demonstrates, the crimes are real. What’s more, there are already numerous cases filed in various federal districts that will likely bare others. It’s only a matter of time before even Trump won’t be able to tweet them away.

The Senate Steps Up on Saudi Arabia

The Senate delivered a sharp rebuke to President Donald Trump and his see-no-evil support for the rulers of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday by advancing a measure that would cut U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But unless Congress enacts and enforces the bill, which is unlikely, it will be just that, a rebuke, with little comfort for the starving Yemenis.

Still, the 63-37 vote was a signal of the exasperation of some Senate Republicans over being repeatedly made to fall in line behind Trump’s disregard for elemental American values and traditions.

The president has treated the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Virginia resident writing for The Washington Post, as a sideshow that shouldn’t get in the way of his friendship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. That callousness incensed even Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has mutated from Trump critic to loyalist. Graham said he was originally against the measure but then switched, explaining, “I changed my mind because I’m pissed.”

What most angered Graham and other senators was the administration’s rejection of their request to hear CIA Director Gina Haspel, whom they wanted to question about the agency’s reasons for concluding that Crown Prince Mohammed was most likely behind the killing. Instead, the White House dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to rehash arguments for doing nothing that might upset Saudi Arabia and to echo Trump’s claim that the CIA had no conclusive proof of the prince’s involvement — or, in the president’s infamous formulation, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

The CIA’s job is to assess information, not to build legal cases, and Trump was most likely worried that if the senators heard Haspel they would be left with no doubt that the order for so brazen and elaborate a killing came from the top. Adding to the insult of defying a legitimate congressional demand was Pompeo’s op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday dismissing concerns over Khashoggi’s killing and Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on human rights as “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.”

What Pompeo and his boss seem not to understand is that the caterwauling is not a failure to appreciate the importance of the Saudi alliance, which nobody denies, but a demand to balance American interests with American values, as Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained when he voted in dissent from the administration’s policy.

That is a balance Trump has systematically disrupted, whether with Saudi Arabia, or in his fearmongering on asylum-seekers, or in his denial of climate change. It’s about time the Senate showed a flash of anger.

But that flash will be just that unless Congress can sustain it. Wednesday’s vote was only to release to the Senate a measure that would invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to end military support for the Saudi-led coalition that has inflicted untold horrors on Yemen since it started a bombing campaign in 2015. The cruelty of that war cannot be overstated: Thousands have been killed, many in the bombing raids, and Yemen is on the cusp of a catastrophic famine. The United States has been deeply involved in supplying weapons and intelligence to the Saudis.

Alas, the chance that the Senate measure will be adopted by the current Congress is minuscule. It still faces several procedural hurdles before a final Senate vote, and it has hardly any chance of passing the House before the end of the year.

Last month, Pompeo and Mattis called for a cease-fire in Yemen and the start of peace negotiations. Yet the administration’s view, as laid out by Trump in his statement on Nov. 20 and by Pompeo in his op-ed, is that Iran is the evildoer in Yemen and more broadly in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is the force for stability and security. These are not sentiments that will bring about a peace deal. So it is up to Congress to put a halt to the bloodshed, which it has the powers to do.

Those senators who care about human rights or the rule of law should continue caterwauling and demanding that they hear from Haspel. And the leaders who will be with Trump and Prince Mohammed at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this weekend should make clear to both that there can be no business as usual with Saudi Arabia until the truth about the Khashoggi killing is known, those responsible are held accountable, and the carnage in Yemen is brought to an end.

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