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The Briefing: On Russiagate, the questions that matter most

WASHINGTON — "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

That question, famously posed by Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee amid the Watergate hearings 45 summers ago, now hangs over the head of the current occupant of the White House — as does one other:

What can prosecutors prove about what the president knew?

If you're trying to sort out what's going on with the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, focus on those two questions — because the investigation, and perhaps the Trump presidency, hinge on them.

That fact came all the more clear last week with CNN's report that Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer, was willing to tell prosecutors that Trump knew in advance about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russians were supposedly ready to spill dirt on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president.

If Cohen does that, and if prosecutors can prove that he's telling the truth, Trump could be in big trouble — but that second "if" is a really big one.

Cohen seems to be seeking a plea deal to minimize his own legal troubles. And in doing so, he poses a grave threat to his former client.

To understand why, it's helpful to look back at what Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., did leading up to that infamous Trump Tower meeting.

It all started with a proposal that profoundly weird British publicist Rob Goldstone emailed to Trump Jr.:

"The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father," Goldstone said.

Trump Jr.'s response?

"If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."

(As an aside, if you are a Trump supporter, imagine how you would have felt if Goldstone had emailed Chelsea Clinton, offering dirt on Donald Trump, and if Chelsea's response had been: "I love it.")

That Trump Tower meeting did indeed take place on June 9, 2016  — with Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort all in attendance.

And while not much appears to have come of the meeting, prosecutors could conceivably look at it as part of a conspiracy — which, in fact, is the criminal term for collusion.

Which is why "What did the president know and when did he know it?" is such a key question. If the man who would be president knew that his son was setting up a meeting with foreign agents, he could be seen as part of the conspiracy, part of the collusion, no matter how many times he denies it.

And that's just what Michael Cohen now is apparently prepared to tell prosecutors.

But would Cohen's word alone be enough to prompt prosecutors to accuse Donald Trump Sr., the president, of being part of a conspiracy? Almost certainly not. 

At this point, Cohen says one thing and President Trump says another — that he didn't know about that Trump Tower meeting. Prosecutors don't like those sorts of he-said/he-said arguments; they like corroboration. Hence that second important question: What can prosecutors prove?

They will likely seek to corroborate Cohen's allegation in two ways. They will likely look for other witnesses who can confirm what Cohen tells them. And they will look at phone logs that could indicate that Trump and his son — the organizer of the Trump Tower meeting — were in contact before and after it happened.

Remember, too, that prosecutors are questioning the fact that Trump Sr. dictated the misleading statement that his son delivered last summer amid the firestorm over the Trump Tower meeting. That could be part of an obstruction of justice case against the president.

And at the same time that special prosecutor Robert Mueller looks into all of that, prosecutors in New York have in their possession recordings that Cohen made of his conversations with Trump — including one that indicates that Trump knew about hush money being paid to a woman who charged she had an affair with Trump a decade earlier. Rudy Giuliani, part of Trump's current legal team, says he wants those tapes to be released — but Giuliani's record working with the president is spotty, at best.

Adding it all up, it's clear that many of the president's legal troubles now revolve around the lawyer who used to try to keep Trump out of trouble: his longtime friend, Michael Cohen.

Which raises a third important question, one you've surely heard before: With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Happening today

President Trump meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the White House ... Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Energy Secretary Rick Perry speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Indo-Pacific Business Forum ... The Justice Department holds a Religious Liberty Summit ... The Consumer Federation of America releases its annual Consumer Complaint Survey, listing the nation's top 10 consumer complaints ... The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on "Space Force: The Pros and Cons of Creating a New Military Branch.''

Good reads

The Washington Post tells us that the white supremacist movement is alive and well in a Pennsylvania town only 105 miles southeast of Buffalo ... Meantime, to Buffalo's northwest, Canadians are debating a total ban on handguns in the wake of a recent Toronto shooting, the Atlantic reports ... The New York Times offers a decidedly different take on the meeting between its publisher and President Trump than Trump himself offered, saying the Times publisher took Trump to task over his attacks on journalism ... Vox says it's ridiculous to expect Facebook to police itself ... And the New Yorker's Ronan Farrow delivers another expose on sexual harassment, this time involving CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.

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