Jurisprudence

Michael Cohen’s Guilty Plea Is a Massive Victory for Robert Mueller’s Divide-and-Conquer Strategy

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks down a hallway, surrounded by staffers.
Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves after meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017, at the Capitol.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump has a lot more to worry about than just Robert Mueller. That much has been clear since April, when details began to emerge from public court filings regarding the FBI raid on Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a number of criminal charges, including some stemming from his work for Trump.

That raid wasn’t the work of Mueller. Instead, it was carried out by FBI agents acting in coordination with Robert S. Khuzami, a deputy U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. Mueller had referred the Cohen case to Khuzami’s office, but that was as far as his involvement apparently went. As I wrote at the time, the distribution of the investigation to a second office served to “potentially inoculate [it] from Trump’s attacks against Mueller and potential meddling in the broader Russia investigation.” Samuel W. Buell, the former lead Enron prosecutor, told me that would make it much more difficult to kill the investigation with a Saturday Night Massacre–style firing spree. “The network of federal law enforcement professionals with experience and reputations, in different respected offices, involved in these matters makes it much harder to come up with a plausible way to surgically stop this,” he said at the time over email.

The fruits of that April raid emerged in Tuesday’s eight-count guilty plea by Cohen on tax fraud, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations. The confession on those final counts directly implicated President Trump. It’s worth noting that Mueller’s name and those of his prosecutors appeared nowhere in any of Cohen’s plea documents. Given that the president has escalated his smear campaign against the former FBI director and longtime Republican by referring to him as “[d]isgraced and discredited Bob Mueller,” it seems like a good thing that another office is handling a major part of the probe. Not only does this distribution of labor offer a rebuttal against the unwarranted charge that Mueller’s investigation is spiraling out of control, it presents more proof that Trump’s consistent demonization of his inquisitors is about his own potential wrongdoing, not theirs.

In his press statement after Cohen’s guilty plea, Khuzami thanked and individually named the members of the team that worked on this case: Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrea Griswold, Rachel Maimin, Thomas McKay, and Nicolas Roos, Public Corruption Unit Chief Russell Capone, Deputy Chief Edward B. Diskant, FBI official Bill Sweeney, and IRS investigator James Robnett. “For all of these people, I could go on and on about their many virtues and talents,” Khuzami said. “But the one important thing is they all are satisfied with simply being known as public servants, prosecutors, and law enforcement agents, who are doing their job.” That description feels like a direct refutation of Trump’s daily assault on the allegedly “very bad and conflicted people” conducting the “witch hunt” as part of the “deep state.” The message Khuzami is sending here is that the people conducting these investigations are ordinary bureaucrats, that they are legion, and that Trump’s constant assertions to the contrary are transparent cons.

Khuzami, for his part, has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. Like Mueller, Khuzami is a Republican; in 2004, he spoke at the Republican National Convention in support of the Patriot Act and President George W. Bush. He was appointed to his post by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, who himself was initially appointed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was appointed by Trump. Berman is recused from the investigation, which is why Khuzami is in charge. (While it’s not been reported why Berman has recused, Trump reportedly took the shocking step of personally interviewing him before he was hired for the U.S. attorney post.) Which is all just to say that Khuzami’s credentials and reputation should be impossible for a Republican president to quibble with.

Nevertheless, Khuzami and his colleagues at SDNY will surely draw the ire of Trump and his allies in Congress and the conservative media, as so many of his previous legal adversaries have. But at a certain point, the vast amount of difficulty Trump and his closest associates seem to have with following the law can no longer just be attributed to the machinations of public servants like Mueller, Khuzami, James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Rod Rosenstein, Robert Mueller, John Brennan, James Clapper, Peter Stzrok, and Bruce Ohr. At a certain point, perhaps as soon as this November’s elections, the American people will want to know the full extent of Trump’s potential criminal liability. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, indicated on Tuesday evening that now that his client has admitted his guilt, he is willing to cooperate with any and all such investigations.

Trump, for his part, will continue to issue daily Twitter bombardments about all of those investigations. “Trump has to attack the entire ‘Sessions Justice Department’ now, as he has been, because he knows demonizing Mueller (even if there were a basis for that, which there is none) won’t cut it,” Buell told me on Tuesday.

But as we witnessed this week, even if Trump can insult every investigator—and effectively retaliate against an all too significant number of them—he likely can’t stop all of them from getting to the truth.

“It’s the president versus the law,” Buell noted.  “Lord help us if the law can’t win that battle.”