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Michael Cohen’s testimony is a political threat to Trump, but not really a legal one

Michael Cohen, who worked as President Trump’s personal lawyer and New York fixer for more than a decade, suggested that Trump had skirted or violated federal banking, tax and campaign finance laws.

Before Michael Cohen’s public testimony to a congressional committee, the question on most minds was whether Donald Trump’s former “fixer” would place Trump in greater jeopardy of impeachment by implicating him in crimes, either actual violations of law or the “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which a president can be impeached.

Not so much.

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Cohen did assert that Trump was advised by Roger Stone that WikiLeaks was going to release emails that would harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. If Atty. Gen. William Barr decides to release most or all of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, we may learn whether Mueller found this claim credible. The indictment of Stone obtained by Mueller did say that during the summer of 2016 “Stone spoke to senior Trump campaign officials about Organization 1 [WikiLeaks] and information it might have had that would be damaging to the Clinton campaign.”

Cohen also testified that Trump after taking office “wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.” But it’s unclear whether payments to women who claimed to have a sexual relationship with Trump implicate the president in a criminal violation of campaign-finance laws. As my colleague Chris Megerian explained here, such a violation requires that a defendant acted “knowingly and willfully.”

Finally, Cohen testified that he knew of no “direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia,” though he had his suspicions.

Yet even if Cohen’s appearance didn’t significantly advance the argument that Trump committed crimes, it might have been harmful to the president in another way. The president’s former lawyer (an admitted liar) probably reinforced the impression of large numbers of Americans that their president is a sketchy and duplicitous character who hires similar types to work for him.

Appearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday, Cohen said that he was ashamed that he had taken part in concealing Trump’s “illicit acts” because “I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”

Republican members of the panel who sought to discredit Cohen inadvertently bolstered his attack on Trump’s character. To the viewer at home, their attacks on his character inevitably must have raised the question of why Trump would engage the services of someone so slippery.

It’s possible that Cohen’s testimony will create legal problems for the man he still calls “Mr. Trump.” But the worst damage may have been political.

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