Cohen’s explosive testimony won’t make a dent on Trump – he has made himself bulletproof to his supporters

They seem to have included his flaws in their calculations

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 28 February 2019 18:34 GMT
Michael Cohen testimony: 'Trump is a racist'

There is a tendency after meetings that conclude off-schedule and without agreement to dismiss the whole exercise as a failure, or perhaps almost worse, as a mistake. But Donald Trump was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.

If he had reached a substantial agreement with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, on only their second meeting, he would surely have been accused by an already critical Washington establishment of a “sell-out”, almost regardless of what it said. That is, after all, how his first summit with Kim was reported – just because it happened. Now, he will be accused of the opposite – of going all the way to Vietnam on a fool’s errand – even if Washington’s hawks will be relieved.

Such a judgement, however, is too harsh. That a summit – or any top-level international meeting – ends without agreement does not automatically mean that it has failed. There is a big difference between leaders storming out in a fury and lambasting the other side, and leaders shaking hands – perhaps regretfully – on an agreement, for the time being, to disagree.

If there was failure here, it was in the inflation of expectations. There was speculation before the meeting that Kim would offer to give up North Korea’s nuclear missile programme, while Trump would offer to lift all US sanctions, and the whole might be crowned with an undertaking that would pave the way for North-South Korea peace treaty. To think that any of this was feasible barely a year after Kim had emerged from the cold was unrealistic to put it mildly.

The best that could have been hoped for – and presumably what lurks somewhere in a now-discarded draft accord – would have been for explicit progress, even a timetable, towards a deal on ending both US sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear programme. What we have instead is the status quo – which is in fact an effective moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear programme and on US joint manoeuvres with the South – and more thinking to be done on sanctions, a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, and the stationing of official representatives in each other’s capitals.

There may not have been any measurable diplomatic progress as such, but there has been no backsliding either, and the parting was respectful. If there is now a better appreciation in both capitals of what can be done, and how quickly, this is not nothing. Nor should it be greeted with anything like the international disappointment that followed the 1986 Reykjavik summit where, after many additional hours of talks, Ronald Reagan rejected an offer from Mikhail Gorbachev that critics claimed could have emasculated the west’s nuclear capability. Then, there was an enormous sense of an opportunity lost.

What happened – or rather did not happen – in Hanoi was quite different, and the way ahead is comparatively clear, with moves towards an official, rather than de facto, ending of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in return for a step-by-step lifting of US sanctions. It should not be impossible.

As for image and status, the US needs to tread carefully. Given the climate in Washington, Trump did himself no harm at all by walking away, leaving the sanctions regime intact. And Kim took away from Hanoi, as he did from Singapore, the pictures and the recognition for himself and his country that he craved. With the North Korean economy in its parlous state, and his people becoming more aware of the world outside, however, he will soon need to be guaranteed something more to make any future such summits worthwhile. On balance, Kim was potentially a little bit the loser this time around.

Which, in the unlikely event that he cared, could have been some consolation to Trump on his long journey home, because his own domestic travails could have been judged to be weakening his authority, not just in advance, but actually during this summit. It was chance, of course, pure chance, that produced one of those consummate split-screen episodes made possible by 24-hour satellite television. Even as Donald Trump was concluding his first night’s dinner with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, the United States was settling down to watch Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, answering questions from the House of Representatives Oversight Committee.

Cohen’s appearance, just weeks before he is due to start a prison sentence for crimes, including tax fraud and perjury, was riveting. From his opening statement, where he called Trump “a racist, a conman and a cheat” and professed himself “ashamed” many times over for his conduct, this was the latest in a long line of American real-reality TV dramas that have included – just in my living memory – Oliver North’s testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas before his appointment to the Supreme Court; President Bill Clinton’s grand jury appearance, and Christine Blasey-Ford testifying tearfully against nominated Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

But how damaging was it, and how might it have affected Trump’s standing as he prepared for his second day of talks with Kim? At his closing press conference, Trump expressed irritation that the hearing had not been postponed, given that he would be on this foreign trip. And in principle, Cohen’s evidence, drawn from more than a dozen years of working closely with Trump, should have left the president both damaged and diminished. He emerged as someone of distinctly questionable morals with something of a mafia godfather approach to his associates, and with an all-consuming desire to win in business, even as he had had no expectation whatever of winning the presidency.

But did this testimony damage Trump – either at his talks in Hanoi or in the longer term? Probably less so than might have been expected beforehand. The absence of international television in North Korean homes and the status gulf between the two leaders meant that Trump’s authority was probably less damaged than it would have been, had he been meeting any other leader.

As for how far Cohen’s appearance might have damaged Trump’s standing with the American public – or even contributed to his eventual impeachment – the answer here, too, is probably not as much as many had expected, if at all. In part this is because Americans are deeply divided in their view of Trump to start with and because his supporters seem to have included his flaws in their calculations. In part it may be because Cohen, while insisting that “I have lied, but am not a liar”, is a convicted perjurer and so vulnerable to questions about his overall veracity.

But third, it is because, despite all the damning detail he had to offer, he produced nothing that constituted evidence of a crime for which Trump could be brought to book. Even the cheque that he brandished as evidence that Trump had reimbursed him for paying off the adult film star, Stormy Daniels, was later cited by one of his lawyer-supporters, Alan Dershowitz, as evidence that actually worked in his favour, as it showed he had used his own money, not his campaign funds.

Perhaps most significant of all was Cohen’s refusal to say – despite much encouragement – that Trump had “colluded” in any way with Russia. This does not necessarily leave Trump in the clear – the Mueller investigation on precisely this question is due to report as early as next week. Nor does it clear up any of the gathering questions about Trump’s finance and business practices. Like it nor not, though – and Democrats dislike it a lot – Cohen’s testimony leaves the president on his return pretty much where he was when he left for his summit with Kim in Hanoi. That could quickly change; but he is safe in the White House – for now.

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