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Michael Cohen And The SDNY Case


In his public testimony before Congress this week, Michael Cohen named names. And now Democratic lawmakers want to bring those people in to answer questions themselves. That includes a real estate developer with business interests in Russia, the CFO of the Trump Organization and President Trump's eldest son. So what did Cohen's testimony reveal about not just the congressional inquiries into the Trump campaign but special counsel Robert Mueller's probe as well? Let's ask Elie Honig. He's a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which brought the charges against Michael Cohen that are now sending him to prison in a couple of months.

So we should probably start there, Elie. I mean, the Southern District of New York is right at the center of all this. Can you just begin by reminding us the scope of the investigations there and the central questions?

ELIE HONIG: Sure. So we don't know exactly - everything that the Southern District is looking at. But we do know a few things. We know the Southern District served a very broad subpoena on the Trump inaugural committee just a couple weeks ago. That means that they're making headway in their investigation. And that means that they're now in sort of a serious fact-finding mode. We also know the Southern District has been running an aggressive investigation of the Trump Organization - the finances of the organization, the payments of the hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. So we know for sure the Southern District has dug in there.

I thought one of the big takeaways from Michael Cohen's testimony on Wednesday was that he said he is in continuing contact and continuing to cooperate with the Southern District of New York, which tells me, A - they are continuing to build their case, which is very characteristic of the Southern District. I worked there for a long time. I know that the aim is always to build out the biggest case possible. And B - that Cohen continues to assist them. And, as I think we all saw on Wednesday, Michael Cohen has a unique insider's perspective on the way these organizations were run.

MARTIN: Was there something specific that he said that, from your vantage point, you thought, oh, that's going to change everything?

HONIG: Yeah. First of all, looking more into what we consider the Mueller route, right? - if you - I sort of loosely divide the investigative world into - Mueller's mandate from DOJ was to investigate Russian interference in the election.

MARTIN: Right.

HONIG: And the big, new revelation that Michael Cohen gave us was his testimony that he was present when Roger Stone called in to Donald Trump's office, was put on speaker phone and told Trump about the WikiLeaks dump of the emails. And Trump said something like, well, that'd be great - something sort of...

MARTIN: Something affirmative.

HONIG: Yeah, affirmative. Exactly. Now, if that's true, if that's provable and proven or if you believe Michael Cohen, that's enormous because Trump has long denied and angrily denied having any knowledge - foreknowledge or knowledge while it was happening - of the WikiLeaks dumps. Now, there's a lot of smoke around that. There was a lot of reason to doubt that. He was making statements right around the time this was happening. And he had his famous, Russia, if you're listening statement - please get the remaining Hillary Clinton emails. So Michael Cohen - that was a sort of game-changing moment of testimony for Michael Cohen?

MARTIN: But how so? I mean, it sounds damning. But what's the legal jeopardy associated with it?

HONIG: Yeah, so a couple things. First of all, can you rely on it? And the big question there is going to be corroboration. As a prosecutor, you never ask a jury or a fact-finder to just take the word of a cooperating witness like Michael Cohen at face value. Cooperating witnesses are inherently flawed. Michael Cohen pled guilty to crimes and so has every cooperating witness ever. So you have to back them up. And watching that piece of testimony, I thought two things. I thought, OK. First of all, they have to get those phone records. Is there a phone record of Roger Stone calling into Trump Tower or any of the Trump-associated numbers around that time? And Cohen was able to put it within a few day time stretch in July 2016. I also thought, they need to talk to that secretary - because Cohen said the secretary patched the call through - and see if they can support it.

Now, the other question you asked, I think, is kind of the so what question. What if it's true? Is it a crime what Trump did? I think there's an argument. And reasonable prosecutors can disagree here. But if it was presented to Trump - this is happening, we have - WikiLeaks has obtained these emails and is now in the process of disseminating them, Trump, by even saying the little bit that he did say according to Cohen, which is, that'd be great, joins a conspiracy or becomes an aider and abettor. Those are two very broad areas of law. Conspiracy, basically, says if there's a meeting of the minds, an understanding and agreement to break the law between two or more people, then that's a crime in itself.

And here, I guess, the crime would be if Trump knew or reasonably should've known there was hacking that had happened - the theft of emails - and then he said, go for it, essentially, he becomes part of the conspiracy or, at a minimum, he becomes an aider and abettor, which simply means somebody who encourages criminal activity.

MARTIN: Right.

HONIG: And one other thing that I think is important here is Trump, because of how powerful he was, they needed his permission to proceed. They could not have gone forward with this if he had not blessed it.

MARTIN: Elie, very quickly, how long could the Southern District's investigation last? - because they're not under the same political pressures as the special counsel.

HONIG: As long as they need - the Southern District will follow this evidence to wherever it goes, however long it takes. That's the way the Southern District does business.

MARTIN: Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, thank you so much.

HONIG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.