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How Michael Cohen's Testimony Could Affect President Trump's Legal Position


President Trump's onetime lawyer spent much of today in a closed-door hearing with the House Intelligence Committee. Yes, we are talking Michael Cohen, and yes, he was back for a third straight day on Capitol Hill following his breathtaking appearance yesterday before the House Oversight Committee. Among other things, Cohen testified there about a hush money payment to a porn star.


MICHAEL COHEN: As part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.

KELLY: Cohen also testified as to whether the president knew his confidant, Roger Stone, was talking to WikiLeaks about releasing hacked emails to damage the Clinton campaign.


COHEN: Mr. Trump responded by stating, to the effect, wouldn't that be great?

KELLY: And he spoke to the president's efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.


COHEN: In his way, he was telling me to lie.

KELLY: All subjects believed to be part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. So how could this testimony affect President Trump's legal position? Barbara McQuade is here to help us sort through that. She was a U.S. attorney. She is now a professor at the University of Michigan. Barbara, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BARBARA MCQUADE: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I want to just tick through a couple of those moments from testimony yesterday and starting with the hush payment money to Stormy Daniels. Cohen, as we heard there, brought with him a check that Donald Trump wrote to him in 2017, the significance there being while Donald Trump was President Trump. From a legal perspective, what is the significance of this revelation?

MCQUADE: I think it could be very significant. It suggests, if true, that President Trump not only paid Michael Cohen for this campaign finance violation and may be guilty of a conspiracy to violate those laws, but also did so while he was president. And that, I think, brings it outside of the realm of criminal and into the realm of potential impeachment. And that's important for, you know, those purists who think that the president cannot be charged with a crime while he is sitting, but he certainly can be impeached.

I think the other thing to remember is that we only saw a limited amount of material. You know, there are those saying, well, this is just one check. I had a supervisor who was fond of saying a brick is not a wall. And what he meant by that is don't be discouraged if you have just one piece of evidence because many bricks do make a wall. Collect your pieces of evidence and see what you have when you're done collecting them.

And so no doubt they will look to other witnesses, other documents to see if they can put together this conspiracy. But I do think that Michael Cohen showed us that President Trump is precipitously close to being implicated in a conspiracy.

KELLY: All right. Let me turn you to the next item, Michael Cohen's testimony that Trump was aware of Roger Stone's contacts with Julian Assange, the founder and leader of WikiLeaks.


COHEN: He was a presidential candidate who knew that Roger Stone was talking with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks drop on the Democratic National Committee emails.

KELLY: What is the significance of that revelation?

MCQUADE: Again, I think it's significant. But, again, a brick is not a wall, it's one more piece. If President Trump merely had advanced knowledge that WikiLeaks was going to disclose these emails, I don't think that alone is a crime. Though I think some could question his failure to alert the FBI about involvement in the election. But I think it does, again, advance the conspiracy investigation.

Robert Mueller did something very clever, I think, when he filed the indictment against the 12 Russian intelligence officers for conspiring to interfere with a fair administration of elections. He defined the conspiracy as an agreement to hack Steele and, importantly, stage the release of stolen emails. That third part is really important because it sets the stage for adding to that indictment any Americans who assisted in staging the release.

And so if there is additional evidence that President Trump or others on his campaign suggested either which emails should be released to maximize their harm to the Hillary Clinton campaign or suggested the timing perhaps to coincide with the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape, for example, then that could also mean that they are co-conspirators with those Russian intelligence officers.

KELLY: It seems one key challenge here if you are a lawyer trying to hang a case on Michael Cohen's testimony is he is not exactly your dream witness.


COHEN: I am sorry for my lies and for lying to Congress.

KELLY: Which prompts me to ask about the documents. We heard about the check that he introduced, but there were others. He brought with him copies of financial statements...


COHEN: From 2011, 2012 and 2013.

KELLY: ...Letters...


COHEN: That threatened his high school, colleges and the college board.

KELLY: ...Documents with the president's original handwritten signature on there.


COHEN: To reimburse me for the hush money payments I made.

KELLY: How important are those documents if you are trying to advance a legal case here?

MCQUADE: I think documents are very important when you have someone like Michael Cohen, whose credibility is legitimately very questionable. But, again, prosecutors use liars in their cases all the time. And the way that they can be useful is by bolstering their credibility with other evidence. Documents are often the best because those don't lie. They are objective. They were written without contemplation of litigation down the road.

I also think that one thing we should keep in mind as we assess the credibility of Michael Cohen yesterday is I think he does have an incentive to tell the truth. He continues to cooperate with the Southern District of New York, it has been reported. And he has the ability there to earn what's called a Rule 35 motion for a reduction of sentence. And so although I don't know that they would promise him a reduction for testifying truthfully before Congress, as he has an obligation to do, but certainly if he were to lie in Congress, I would think any deal or benefit from the Southern District of New York would be off.

KELLY: Right. He could face further charges, in fact, if he were to be found to have lied to Congress again. Well, I mean, did you find his testimony credible yesterday?

MCQUADE: I did. I thought that he made admissions when he couldn't go too far. You know, he was asked about collusion, and he said no. He appeared at least to be careful not to overstate what he knew. That doesn't mean he's the best guy in the world. And I think that we shouldn't make the mistake of saying he's completely redeemed himself. He has still done some very despicable things in his lifetime, but just because you've done despicable things doesn't mean every word out of your mouth is a lie.

KELLY: So overall, what was the legal impact of his testimony yesterday?

MCQUADE: I think he advanced the ball. I think he gave Congress bricks with which they could continue to see if they can build a wall. Certainly these are bricks that are already known to Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York. The real question is, what other bricks are out there?

KELLY: Barbara McQuade. She was a U.S. attorney. She now teaches law at the University of Michigan. Barbara, thanks very much.

MCQUADE: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.