Does the Cohen Tape Spell Trouble for Trump?

alichtman0726tapes

Longtime Donald Trump fixer Michael Cohen has released a recording of him and Trump discussing the financing for a hush money deal with Karen McDougal. Allan Lichtman of American University, author of “The Case for Impeachment,” says that Trump’s “war on women is coming back to haunt him.”

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

Does a new secret tape spell trouble for President Trump? That’s the question many are asking after Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen released a recording he made of Trump from September 2016. The two are heard discussing the financing for a hush money payment to Karen McDougal, with whom Trump allegedly had a romantic affair. CNN first aired the tape.

MICHAEL COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, so that- I couldn’t do that right away.

DONALD TRUMP: Give it to me.

MICHAEL COHEN: I’ve actually come up, and I’ve spoken to Alan Weiselberg about how to set the whole thing up with the funding. Yes. And it’s all the stuff, all the stuff. Because here, you never know where that company, you never know-.

DONALD TRUMP: Maybe he gets hit by a truck.

MICHAEL COHEN: Correct. So I’m all over that. And I spoke to Alan about it. When it comes time for the financing, which will be-.

DONALD TRUMP: What financing?

MICHAEL COHEN: We’ll have to pay.

DONALD TRUMP: Pay with cash.

MICHAEL COHEN: No, no, no, no, I got it.

AARON MATE: Now there is news that more tapes could be on the way. According to The Washington Post, the FBI has seized over 100 recordings that Cohen made of his conversations about Trump-related matters, including more with Trump himself. Speaking to ABC News, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis said Cohen has turned a corner in his life.

LANNY DAVIS: I will say that Michael Cohen has turned a corner in his life, and he’s now dedicated to telling the truth to everyone, and we’ll see what happens.

AARON MATE: The Karen McDougal payment story could have legal implications for Trump if it turns out that he used campaign funds for his hush money deal. Trump’s camp denies that he did, and says, in fact, that the tape exonerates him. Joining me is Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University; author of books including The Case for Impeachment and the forthcoming The Embattled Vote in America, From the Founding to the Present. Welcome, Professor Lichtman. There is some debate over what Trump actually says in the tape; does he say don’t pay with cash, or does he say pay with cash. But regardless, what’s your sense of what this tape means? Do you think that Trump is criminally exposed here?

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Well, I’m not a lawyer. But let me say this. This shows that Trump’s war on women is coming back to haunt him. In The Case for Impeachment I have a chapter, in fact, called Trump’s War on Women. And I begin it with the following quote from Donald Trump: “People want me to run for president all the time.” This is from 1999. “I don’t like it. Can you imagine how controversial I’d be? You think about him, Clinton and the women. How about me with the women? Can you imagine.”

Now we know how Trump deals with his war on women, treating them as objects for his own pleasure and sexual gratification. He deals with it by paying hush money to keep those women quiet. We know that he paid $130,000 to keep Stormy Daniels quiet. We don’t know if he actually paid money to get the so-called Karen McDougal catch and kill story. But he may have. But regardless of whether he paid Karen McDougal or not, the tape clearly reveals that he was fully aware of the fact that AMI paid Karen McDougal $150,000 to catch and kill her story. And they were worried that AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, would contain it. And that’s why they were considering taking over the story by paying the money itself.

There are certainly violations of campaign finance law involved here. Clearly the catch and kill payment from AMI looks like it was coordinated with the Trump campaign. Certainly they knew about it. And if so, if it was designed to help the campaign by keeping out an embarrassing story, that would be a clear violation of campaign finance laws. So, too, may be the payment to Stormy Daniels. Let’s not forget, John Edwards was prosecuted for doing the same thing. He wasn’t convicted. There was a hung jury. But the case here is much, much stronger, because John Edwards had the excuse; I was trying to avoid embarrassing my very sick wife, who is suffering from cancer. This McDougal story was ten years old. The payments only come right before the campaign. There’s no issue here credibly that Trump could claim this had nothing to do with the campaign, and was only designed not to embarrass millennia Trump. Particularly since it was already known, and Melania knew full well that Trump was an admitted philanderer, even before he married her.

So I do think aside from severe political problems showing that Trump is an abject liar, lying first about a lack of knowledge about the payment to Stormy Daniels, and then his campaign lying about a lack of knowledge of the payment to Karen McDougal; but also that he could well be enmeshed in allegations of fraud, and certainly violations of campaign finance law. And campaign finance law is serious stuff. It may sound trivial, but it’s designed precisely to avoid this kind of corruption.

AARON MATE: Right. OK, so we can certainly agree that it shows him lying, on top of adding to this long record he has of knowing about misogyny, and dealings with women. But just because he’s running for president doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the legal right to settle, to make some sort of financial deal with someone. And I guess my question is if the money doesn’t come from the campaign, can that be possibly considered a violation of campaign finance laws?

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Absolutely. If, in fact, the AMI payment was coordinated with the Trump campaign in order to avoid an embarrassing matter that could undermine his campaign, that is known as a contribution in kind, and it would have to be reported to the FEC. And I’m not talking about a few dollars here. We’re talking about a huge campaign contribution. And the failure to report it is a serious violation of the campaign finance laws. Quite possibly a criminal violation. Not to mention- and I’m not a lawyer- but some lawyers have talked about possible bank and wire fraud involved here, as well.

AARON MATE: Is there any evidentiary basis for that?

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Well, there certainly might be some evidentiary basis in the payment of Stormy Daniels, whereby Michael Cohen set up this shell cooperation. And it may well be that he set up this corporation on a fraudulent basis. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. And believe me, the prosecutors know vastly more than we know at this point.

And here’s something very significant. One thing that’s been somewhat overlooked is another name comes up in this conversation. Alan, who is Alan Weiselberg, who is the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and is involved in the Trump organization- goes all the way back to the 1970s. He’s been involved for 45 years with the Trump organization. Apparently he knows all of the shady dealings that the Trump organization has been involved in. And according to The Wall Street Journal he has now been subpoenaed by prosecutors to testify. This name that nobody knows could become a key in revealing potential financial crimes involving Donald Trump. Remember, it was an absolute unknown person, a civil servant named Alexander Butterfield, who broke open the Nixon case when he revealed the existence of the White House taping system. Could it be that Alan Weiselberg, another absolute unknown to the public, becomes critical in opening up a case of financial crimes against Trump? I don’t know that, but I do have a chapter in The Case for Impeachment called Flouting the Law, which shows that Trump has a long, long history before he ran for president of flouting the law. Including exploiting illegal immigrants, violating the embargo to Cuba, bringing in models, foreign models, illegally into his modeling agency. So this is not someone who has been faithful to the law throughout his long career. And who knows what Mr. Weiselberg may be able to reveal.

AARON MATE: I hate defending Trump’s legal history. But on the issue of the Cuban embargo, I remember that story. I always thought that that was overblown. From what I remember, correct me if I’m wrong, the Trump organization looked into possibly investing there, and spent money on a trip to go there. How did that violate the Cuban embargo? Putting aside the morality of the Cuban embargo.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: All of this stuff is immoral. But the Cuban embargo, as I pointed out in The Case for Impeachment, is crystal clear. You cannot go to Cuba and spend money. And they spent tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a possible business deal in Cuba without prior approval from the United States government. It’s clear that he violated the embargo. When it came out, of course, the statute of limitations had long run, and he wasn’t prosecuted. But the violation was quite clear. And read the section of my book and you’ll see that.

AARON MATE: Okay. So finally, Professor, you famously predicted, and you stood out for doing so, because before November 2016 when everybody, at least in the Beltway and in media, thought that Trump was going to lose majorly to Hillary Clinton, you predicted before then that actually Trump was going to win. I believe it was basically you and Michael Moore in terms of prominent figures to predict that.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Pretty much. Yeah.

AARON MATE: And so now since then, you’ve since predicted that Trump will be impeached. Do you still stand by that prediction?

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Absolutely. And here’s why. I think there’s already- just what’s based on publicly known as strong or stronger a case for obstruction of justice against Donald Trump than there was against Bill Clinton on a vastly more important matter. Not, we’re not talking about a consensual private affair. We’re talking about an attempt to undermine our democracy by the Russians which has been amply documented both by the intelligence community and by the indictments issued by Robert Mueller. That’s just what’s publicly known. I believe that what is publicly known about obstruction of justice, about possible conspiracy with the Russians and about financial crimes is a tiny fraction of what Mueller and his investigators know. I firmly believe that Mueller is going to come up with truly shocking findings. I don’t think he’s twiddling his thumbs. I don’t think he’s doing nothing all this time with respect to the president of the United States, who we know has a long history of lying and flouting the law.

And that’s either going to put the Republicans in an impossible position of going down with Donald Trump or opening up an impeachment investigation. Or the Democrats will take over the House, and they’ll be able to launch an impeachment investigation without any Republican votes.

AARON MATE: All right. So without getting into a debate about whether there’s evidence of Russian collusion and a conspiracy on that front, because I take a different position than you do; President Clinton, he- the main case against him for impeachment was he perjured himself, right? Because he lied in a deposition about his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. The problem is they haven’t gotten Trump into into that sort of situation yet, where he hasn’t even been interviewed. So what makes you confident he could be indicted on the obstruction part? Because that certainly is what many people think is this- in terms of the public evidence is the strongest case so far for impeachment when it comes to Trump’s alleged obstruction of the investigation into his alleged dealings with Russia.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Right. You forget that Clinton was impeached on two counts. One count was perjury, but the other count, for which virtually every single Republican in the House voted for, was obstruction of justice. And if you read the congressional hearings on the impeachment, you hear Republican after Republican saying no one is above the law; the president is not above the law. The president can not obstruct justice and get away with it. That’s why the second count of impeachment was obstruction of justice. Let us also not forget that one of the counts of impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee voted against Richard Nixon that ultimately led to his resignation was obstruction of justice. And that was a bipartisan vote. One third of Republicans in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee put patriotism above party, and voted for the obstruction count.

Nd a lot of the elements of that obstruction count were precisely the same thing we see Trump doing based on what is publicly known; that is, pressuring government agencies to throttle the investigation into the Watergate break-in and its aftermath. We see Donald Trump pressuring the director of the FBI, pressuring the heads of the intelligence community in the United States to quash the investigation into possible crimes by his team and himself.

AARON MATE: All right. Well, you and I take a different take on that, but we’ll leave that for another time. Hope to have you back.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: Sure, I’m happy to come back.

AARON MATE: Professor Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University; author of The Case for Impeachment and the forthcoming The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the President. Professor, thank you.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: My great pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.