The White House’s closest allies in Congress and the media are leaning on President Trump’s go-to line in downplaying Thursday’s news that Michael Cohen has entered into a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Ignoring the meat of the development—that Cohen admitted he was working on a deal for the Trump Organization to develop a project in Moscow in the middle of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—Trump’s defenders have claimed that Mueller is forced to prosecute false statements because he has no stronger criminal charges to bring.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) dismissed Cohen’s new guilty plea, calling it “a process crime.”
“I’ve yet to see anybody indicted for actually colluding with the Russians,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill, according to NBC News.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), newly elected as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, echoed that there has yet to be any development that “in any way changes the landscape, so to speak, where the President is concerned,” as he told Fox News.
Other congressional Republicans took a stronger line against Cohen. Both outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Judiciary Committee member John Kennedy (R-LA) said that Trump’s former attorney deserved to be prosecuted for the crime of lying to Congress.
Michael Anton, former spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council, also lashed out at Mueller’s team for pursuing a “process” crime, telling Fox that the special counsel has strayed from his initial mandate of investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Pro-Trump media ran with that line as well. A splash feature on Breitbart News read “Mueller ripped for ‘false statement prosecutions’” and linked to a write-up of a Fox interview with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
“I think the weakness of Mueller’s substantive findings are suggested by the fact that he has to resort to false statement prosecutions, which really shows that he didn’t start with very much, and that the very fact that he’s conducting an investigation has created these crimes,” Dershowitz said. “These are not crimes that had been committed prior to his appointment, they’re crimes that were committed as the result of his appointment.”
Far-right conspiracy site Gateway Pundit posited that the “Mueller-Rosenstein Deep State” intentionally announced the Cohen deal on the day Trump departed for Argentina for the G-20 summit in order to push him “off balance.”
“If the Obama-Democrat Deep State criminals are not defeated, President Trump will be ruined and this glorious democratic experiment called the United States is over,” the post said.
All of these interpretations offer a rather skewed read on what Mueller and his team have actually been up to over the past year and a half. The special counsel has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 33 people and three companies for charges that go far beyond perjury.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted for a host of charges from tax fraud to failing to register as a foreign agent for his work on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates was indicted on similar charges before flipping on Manafort, his former boss, and entering into a plea deal with Mueller’s team.
Some 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies were indicted on conspiracy charges for a targeted propaganda effort to influence voters during the 2016 campaign.
Most damning for Trump is Cohen’s initial August plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan—the fruits of a referral from Mueller’s office. As part of that deal, Cohen admitted he arranged hush money payments on Trump’s behalf to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. Federal prosecutors say the Trump Organization executives were involved in structuring those payments.
The President’s allies are correct that no U.S. individual has yet been charged explicitly with cooperating with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and such charges may never come. But Mueller was granted explicit authority by the Justice Department to pursue “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Former prosecutors have also told TPM it’s typical for prosecutors to pursue lesser charges against individuals to secure their cooperation as they build a brick-by-brick criminal case in this sort of sprawling investigation involving a wide network of people. There is no need for Mueller’s team to hit cooperating witnesses with all of the crimes they are charged with, nor for them to lay out everything they know in publicly available court documents.
For example, former national security adviser Michael Flynn was under investigation for a slew of inappropriate foreign dealings, but pleaded guilty only to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials in exchange for his cooperation.
Legal experts told TPM at the time that Flynn would not receive such a favorable deal unless he had valuable information to provide the government about others involved in the investigation.