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The Briefing: Trump's ex-lawyer seems ready to sing

WASHINGTON – Michael Cohen, the lawyer who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump, suddenly looks like he wants to take a plea instead.

And that fact, obscured amid the president's shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy and his shoot-from-the-lip tweet storms, could spell terrible legal trouble for Trump – depending, of course, on the evidence.

We now know, though, that there is evidence: a dozen secret recordings that Cohen, long Trump's loyal lawyer and fixer, secretly recorded without Trump's knowledge or permission.

We know that on one of those tapes, Cohen and Trump discuss payments to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump a decade ago: In fact, Cohen's team released that tape late Tuesday.

And we know that federal prosecutors in New York are looking into whether hush money payments to McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels constitute campaign finance violations.

And we know, too, that Cohen suddenly wants to tell his story. Just look at his Twitter feed, where Cohen increasingly trolls his former boss.

On one of the many recent days when Trump railed against the "fake news media," Cohen tweeted a quote from the late CBS legend Walter Cronkite that said: “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”

And on the day when Trump stood next to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and openly doubted whether Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, Cohen tweeted a quote from his recent interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in which he directly repudiated the president.

“I respect our nation’s intelligence agencies who determined that Russia, had in fact, interfered or meddled in our democratic process. I repudiate Russia’s effort ... and call on all Americans to do the same," Cohen said.

That ABC interview went largely unnoticed, but it shouldn't have, because it's the clearest indication yet that Cohen seems eager to cooperate with prosecutors, no matter the consequences for the president.

“To be crystal-clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty," Cohen said.

He trolled the president in that interview, too. Asked about the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the election – which Trump derides as a "witch hunt" – Cohen replied: "I don’t like the term witch hunt."

And clearly knowing that Trump routinely derides the FBI for its role in that investigation, Cohen said: “I don’t agree with those who demonize or vilify the FBI. I respect the FBI as an institution, as well as their agents."

Cohen even had kind words for the FBI agents who raided his home back in the spring. That would seem to be a sure sign that he's making nice with authorities in hopes of striking a plea deal in a case that involves not only the hush money that Cohen apparently paid on Trump's behalf, but also Cohen's New York City taxi business.

Beyond his tweets and his ABC interview, Cohen has been questioning Trump's fitness to be president. Cohen has even been heard to tell friends that he's angry about the Trump team's efforts to discredit him, saying: “Did they think I was just going to roll over and die?”

All of this behavior leads to a rather obvious question:

Will Michael Cohen sing?

Just as obviously, the answer seems to be yes – but as of yet, we don't know Cohen's tune.

Will he just dish on Trump's payoffs to his former mistresses? Or will he spill more, much more, about connections between Trump and Russia?

That latter possibility is among Trump's gravest dangers. Remember that the infamous "dossier" gathered by a former British intelligence agent alleges that Cohen went to Prague in 2016 to meet with Russians, for God knows what reason. Cohen has steadfastly denied that allegation, but perhaps it's notable that he's dropped the defamation suit he filed against Buzzfeed, which published the dossier.

If Cohen did indeed meet with Russians on behalf of the Trump campaign – and if he's willing to say so much – then the case against him in the federal courts in New York could dovetail directly into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election meddling.

And in that case, Cohen might go down in history not as Trump's loyal fixer, but as his John Dean, the lawyer who brought down a president.

Happening today

President Trump welcomes Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, to the White House … Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the administration's talks with North Korea as well as Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin … The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the move to 5G internet service … A Senate Commerce subcommittee holds a hearing on sending astronauts to Mars … The House Government Operations subcommittee holds a hearing on cybersecurity.

Good reads

In the New York Times, Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, asks and answers the question: "Trump is being manipulated by Putin – what should we do?"...The Wall Street Journal warns us that Russian hackers have broken into the control rooms of U.S. power utilities ...
The New Republic says there's no silent centrist majority ... The Washington Post visits an Alabama town where Christians wrestle with moral issues in the Trump era ... And in USA Today, columnist Alicia Shepard calls on America's billionaires to save the newspaper industry.

 

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