President Donald Trump rage-tweeted an adamant denial of CNNâ€™s explosive scoop Thursday night, which reported that estranged lawyer Michael Cohen is prepared to testify that Trump knew of and approved the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting before it happened. Trump has regularly insisted he did not know of the meeting - which Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials took in the expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton furnished by the Russian government.
So this revelation, if true, would directly implicate Trump himself in an effort to conspire with a foreign power to tip the election to him, and a subsequent effort to cover that up. We already know that Trump helped dictate a statement lying to America about the real purpose of the meeting, and, if Cohen is right, the coverup would also include falsely denying not just knowledge of the meeting, but also his approval of it.
But the importance of this story may not lie in what Cohen is willing to say about Trumpâ€™s alleged knowledge of this meeting.
Rather, its real significance may be that it signals a further unraveling of the Cohen-Trump relationship that could lead Cohen to share previously undisclosed information about other matters related to Trump and Russia that still remain shrouded in mystery.
There are several reasons Cohenâ€™s willingness to testify to Trumpâ€™s alleged awareness may not be significant. First, it might not be true: We should regard everything that comes out of this supremely oily characterâ€™s mouth with extreme skepticism. Second, if it is true, special counsel Robert Mueller can verify it with other, less-supremely-oily sources, and indeed (again, if it is true) he probably already has.
Note that CNNâ€™s story says this:
â€śCohen alleges that he was present, along with several others, when Trump was informed of the Russiansâ€™ offer by Trump Jr. By Cohenâ€™s account, Trump approved going ahead with the meeting with the Russians, according to sources.â€ť
This says Trump knew of and approved the meeting, which represents another order of implication entirely.
That said, those â€śseveral othersâ€ť can verify this story if it is true. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani says all these others claim this never happened. This suggests that even Trumpâ€™s camp acknowledges there was some sort of conversation involving Cohen, Trump, and these â€śseveral others.â€ť
So what this really means is that Cohenâ€™s claim is verifiable either way. We donâ€™t have to take Cohenâ€™s word for it.
We can wait to learn who these â€śothersâ€ť are; what they claim happened; and whether they told Mueller of it (if they were willing to do this, it probably has happened already). Whatâ€™s more, we should wait to see whether Cohen is actually willing to say all this to Mueller under oath. Iâ€™d suggest reserving judgment until these things happen.
But beyond this, if Cohen is really willing to start talking a lot more about Trumpâ€™s relationship with Russia, that could prove significant in other ways.
--An opening salvo from Cohen?
As youâ€™ll recall, McClatchy reported back in April that Mueller has evidence that Cohen secretly traveled to Prague in the summer of 2016.
Cohen has adamantly denied this, but if it were true, it would lend support to the claim in the so-called Steele dossier, which reported on extensive Trump-Russia ties, that this meeting did happen. The reason this matters: The Steele dossier claimed Cohen held this meeting in Prague with Russian officials, to strategize over how to limit the â€śdamageâ€ť from, among other things, Trump adviser Carter Pageâ€™s meetings with Russians, and more broadly, to â€śprevent the full details of TRUMPâ€™s relationship with Russia being exposed.â€ť
Now, to be clear, we have no idea whether that Prague meeting did actually happen. But the point, as Andrew Prokop has explained vox.com, is that Cohenâ€™s denial of this meeting has been central to the Trump campâ€™s efforts to undermine the Steele dossierâ€™s broader credibility.
If Cohen is really talking more about Trump and Russia now, he might be willing to, shall we say, revisit his claims about the Steele dossier and, more broadly, get into other Trump-Russia murkiness that we donâ€™t know about.
And as Adam Davidson has noted on newyorker.com, Cohen reportedly has extensive knowledge of Trumpâ€™s pre-White House international dealings.
â€śCohen may have other things to say about the Trump-Russia connection beyond the Trump Tower meeting,â€ť Bob Bauer, the former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, told me. â€śWhat else does he know about the Trump campaignâ€™s planning to extract maximum benefit from the Russians? This is just the opening salvo.â€ť
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant - what you might call â€śopinionated reportingâ€ť from the left.