How Mueller surprised the media again, this time with a Cohen plea deal

Posted November 30, 2018 12:47 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

POTUS reportedly found out on Wednesday night. The rest of us found out on Thursday morning when George Stephanopoulos broke the news about Michael Cohen pleading guilty about lying to Congress. "We're coming on the air with major breaking news in the Russia investigation," Stephanopoulos said...

And you know the rest by now. But let's reflect on the fact that, once again, Robert Mueller's team surprised everyone. "We live in a political environment characterized by constant leaks," but Cohen's plea "happened with no warning. That reflects admirable discipline in Mueller's office," attorney and former federal prosecutor Ken White wrote for The Atlantic.

ABC's scoop

Stephanopoulos has had several scoops about Cohen this year. Earlier this month, the LAT's Stephen Battaglio asked him, "How did you develop the connection to Michael Cohen?" He answered: "Every time Trump wanted to do interviews, you worked it through Michael Cohen. He would be there. You'd talk to him beforehand, talk to him afterward. And then I would have lunch with him twice a year..."

"Tip of the iceberg"

Mueller is obviously using public filings and court proceedings to share some of his findings about Trump and Russia. And Trump is obviously lashing out. Upon arrival in Argentina for the G20 summit, Trump tweeted, "this is an illegal Hoax that should be ended immediately." But he knows better than that. As a reality TV star in a past life, he knows that the end isn't in sight quite yet. As Fox's top legal analyst, Judge Andrew Napolitano, said on the air Thursday morning, Cohen's admission is just the "tip of an iceberg." And "where is the rest of that iceberg? In Bob Mueller's office."

Napolitano provided clear-eyed commentary on Fox's newscasts. But the network's pro-Trump talk shows downplayed the seriousness of Thursday's news. Sometimes it seems like they're several months behind the rest of the media... As if the damning details haven't reached them yet!

Here's what one of Cohen's former clients is saying...

"Mueller is not on a mission for truth and justice," Sean Hannity said Thursday night. "He's on a crusade to destroy, delegitimize, disrupt the Donald Trump presidency."

Reminder: Cohen used to help out Hannity with legal questions. Earlier this year, Hannity was revealed to be a client of Cohen's.

"Look, I know Michael Cohen," Hannity said Thursday night. "He has a wonderful family. I can't imagine the pressure he's under. I'm not going to pile on. He's got a lot of hard things that he's facing. But this is important. If this is Mueller's big witness, it is fair to ask, who are we to believe, the Michael Cohen then or the Michael Cohen now?" That question was a theme on Fox's prime time shows... The hosts and guests disparaged Cohen and sowed doubt about his credibility...

How it played in prime time

"Today," Jeffrey Toobin said on "AC360," is "the first day I actually thought Donald Trump might not finish his term in office. I think this thing is enormous."

While Fox's shows engaged in whataboutism and pivoted to other subjects, like immigration, CNN and MSNBC's shows were focused on the fallout from Cohen's confession. There were multiple segments about Cohen's ongoing cooperation with Mueller. Gloria Borger quoted a source close to Cohen who said, "Michael has the goods. He has extremely valuable information."

-- Chris Cuomo: "Did the president lie to Mueller in his answers about that same Russia deal? And if so, are we seeing a pattern that may persuade Congress to act?"

-- Rachel Maddow: "If Matthew Whitaker was installed at the DOJ to bring the Muller investigation to a halt, today shows that THAT has not happened..."

Read more of Thursday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

Notes and quotes

-- WaPo's Friday headline: "Trump emerges as a central subject of Mueller probe"

-- Trumpworld's lies "gave a powerful geopolitical adversary at least some leverage over an American president and his son," Conor Friedersdorf wrote...

-- Kara Scannell's latest: "Donald Trump Jr., Trump Org. in spotlight after Cohen plea"

-- BuzzFeed's scoop, later matched by CNN and other outlets: There was talk about giving Vladimir Putin a penthouse in Trump Tower Moscow...

-- John Podhoretz has always been a skeptic about Russian collusion, but "today, I'm not such a skeptic any longer," he wrote in this new NYPost column...

-- Bloomberg's Greg Farrell: "Cohen's Plea Suggests Russians Held 'Kompromat' on Trump"