“You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.” — OutKast
Over the past 15 months, special counsel Robert Mueller has been building brick by brick a palace, a narrative structure big enough and intricate enough to accommodate dozens of people who have committed dozens of crimes connected in hundreds of ways — both obvious and obscure — in what will amount to one of the biggest and most bizarre criminal conspiracies in modern memory. He is telling this story chronologically. We’ve seen, in the first half-dozen or so indictments, the backstory and some expository evidence Mueller is using to set up his take on the explosive events of the late spring and summer of 2016, the events that comprise what’s become known colloquially as “collusion” — the treasonous conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to destabilize the American democratic process and steal an election from the American people.
The scope of Mueller’s investigation goes far beyond this, however. His team must untangle a sprawling web of financial and computer crimes related directly and indirectly to this conspiracy, many of which cross international lines. Mueller’s mandate also includes a meta-investigation into an arachnoid conspiracy to obstruct the broader initial investigation, including into what extent the president himself should be held criminally accountable for that obstruction.
It’s herculean, and we have to admit that some allegations might prove impossible to, well, prove. Still, Mueller has managed to deliver the goods in the form of more than 100 charges filed against dozens of people, guilty pleas from multiple senior Trump officials turned cooperating witnesses, and, last week, the first criminal conviction of a senior Trump associate, his campaign manager and crime enthusiast Paul Manafort. Mueller‘s most recent indictment named members of Russian intelligence and laid out in extraordinary detail the Kremlin’s side of the plot to hack America. That indictment alluded to Russia’s cooperation with WikiLeaks, but pointedly it didn’t name WikiLeaks or a Trump associate (Roger Stone) who prosecutors said approached WikiLeaks from the US side.
In other words, it appears Mueller has walked us, one fastidious step at a time, on a high-wire to the brink of something big. Then along comes Michael Cohen on a unicycle, juggling a playmate, a porn star, the National Enquirer, and the president of the United States, driven under the bullwhip of one Michael Avenatti, TV lawyer and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful.
And the metaphor has metamorphosed from palace to circus.
Cohen, who earlier this week stunned the country by incriminating Trump under oath in open court in a felony conspiracy, might blow right past Mueller. It’s unclear just how prepared federal investigators – and the rest of us – are to handle such a development. It could change everything, and though Cohen might bring Trump down faster, considering the brewing chaos — and that the president thrives in chaos — this might not be such a good thing.
First, none of this would be a surprise to Mueller. He has been investigating Cohen‘s finances since at least October of last year, and thanks to some expert babbling by former Trump staffer San Nunberg — who said on television this week that Mueller had asked him far more questions about Cohen than about Roger Stone — we can assume Mueller has been zeroing in on Trump’s former lawyer for some time.
At this point it’s worth noting that Cohen’s plea deal this week did not include a cooperating agreement. It’s unclear why, but the fact that Cohen wasn’t proffered such a deal indicates that Mueller, who knows how integral Cohen is to the conspiracy, might not actually need the dude. Cohen is a liar and probably not the best guy to put on the witness stand, and if the special counsel has already obtained enough documentary and electronic evidence from the FBI’s raid on Cohen’s offices and residences, they probably wouldn’t need to have him say anything.
This is why it’s interesting that Cohen is starting to talk. And he’s saying a lot.
Cohen, through his lawyer Lanny Davis, said this week that he knows that Donald Trump knew in advance not just about the Trump Tower meeting, but about the hacks on the DNC. If true, and if provable, that’s the ball game. You’d think Mueller would be interested in this information, but again we’ve seen no sign that Mueller is interested in Cohen’s help at all.
Why? We have no clue. Mueller might very well want to enjoin Cohen. But as things stand now, we’re watching a frightened and vindictive Trump confidant gone rogue, dropping a series of bombs that could very well blow up the White House in a last-ditch inveigling for mercy from the law. Cohen for some reason — along with his lawyer — believes his best option is to take his case straight to the court of public opinion. Unlike the President of the United States, though, Robert Mueller doesn’t get his information from cable news — Cohen and Davis are sending this message to you and me, and probably also to our elected officials: it’s time to take Trump down.
But is it?
Well, of course it is. Has been for a long time. But there might be unintended consequences to the Cohen route, because every route Cohen has taken in his life has had unintended consequences.
Look, Mueller probably knows everything Cohen knows, but Cohen doesn’t know anywhere near the amount of information Mueller knows. If Cohen gets out ahead of Mueller, he also gets out ahead of all the necessary evidentiary groundwork and support needed to shore up one of the most serious and precarious investigations in US history. Cohen could in a matter of weeks and perhaps even days put an unbearable amount of pressure on the president, but if this moves too fast the chaos might be impossible to contain. Keep in mind that all these vectors, along with an impending report on the President’s role in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, are converging on November and the midterm elections, where Democrats are poised to take control of the House.
Hard to imagine a more volatile scenario, right? The politics point to a power grab. Trump will at some point feel threatened enough to do the unthinkable, and if the GOP, fearing a major political loss, is handed any excuse, their track record shows they’re probably willing to let him get away with anything. This is precisely why Mueller has been so deliberate about telling his story and building his palatial case: It’s got to be perfect.
Michael Cohen isn’t exactly a perfectionist. In the interest of saving himself and his family, he might do too much too quickly, and force this moment to its crisis before any of us are prepared.
Then again, Mueller might have accounted for this months ago when he referred the Cohen investigation to the Southern District of New York rather than taking it on himself. He knew he didn’t have the resources to fold the Cohen thread into the narrative he was weaving at the time, and Cohen’s flakiness and volatility might have been part of that calculation. Mueller needed SDNY to take this one off his hands. Or maybe he didn’t want to tempt fate by blurring the lines of his mandate. Either way, Mueller has been cautious about Cohen, and with good reason.
Which raises a final thought. Cohen, by threatening Trop in the court of public opinion, might also be telegraphing a threat to Mueller. The only leverage Cohen has are his secrets, and secrets are only leverage to people who don’t know them. If Mueller doesn’t want Cohen to spill the beans, Cohen’s gambit here might pay off in the form of a cooperation deal that ironically enough would be solely intended to shut him up while Mueller does his stuff.
Of course, Cohen and Mueller aren’t the only ones who know these secrets. The Wall Street Journal just reported that many people were prepared to flip on Cohen and Trump, too. The investigation has shifted into a higher gear. Look out.