29 Nov Liars, Pawns & Imperfect Justice
The news is all atwitter about the guilty plea enterred by Michael Cohen, former lawyer for Donald Trump. He admitted to having lied to Congress about details concerning the possibility of developing a Trump Tower in Russia, clarifying in court today that his prior testimony was untrue because it was inaccurate about the timing of those business negotiations. This may strike you as much ado about nothing – particularly if you are a husband struggling to remember your own “timing” issues: wedding anniversary, kid’s birthdays, and that dentist appointment you’d rather forget. Good thing we don’t face criminal charges for those missteps.
But this is a big deal entirely because of the Washington legal/political context – i.e. The Mueller investigation into possible”Russia collusion” into the last presidential election that has sought from day one to target those closest to a sitting President, and including, let’s face it, the President himself.
It is hard to separate this from the partisans involved, but if we do, we get a window into the particularly pernicious world in Washington of politically-laced prosecutions. We’ve seen politically charged cases take malicious turns before. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of President Reagan’s National Security Council, was caught up in the Iran-Contra affair in the late 1980s and was charged with offenses almost entirely alleged to have arisen out of the Independent Counsel’s investigation, rather than predating it. Like the Mueller probe, the North case looked like an investigation triggering a crime rather than discovering whether one had been committed in the first place. Col. North’s case was so riddled with errors favoring the prosecution that the core of his conviction was rightfully reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals resulting in all charges being dismissed. After all that legal effort, all that remained was the scorched earth left behind from the Independent Counsel’s prosecutorial manhunt.
Michael Cohen’s convictions up to now were entirely unrelated to his famous client; things like his handling of his taxi businesses and bank fraud. But he has undoubtedly been squeezed by the Mueller team to yield up any useful fodder that might be handy for a legal firestorm against the Administration.This may sound cynical, but as a trial lawyer for 30+ years, and someone who’s been around Washington for a while, I recognize the game of thrones that appears to be going on. Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once commented that the “most dangerous power of the prosecutor” is that “he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than cases that need to be prosecuted.” Those comments were in a speech delivered in 1940. They are perhaps more relevant today than ever. If heeded, they may result in our imperfect criminal justice system being just a little less imperfect.