Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer and “fixer” for President Donald Trump, testified in front of Congress last week. Cohen made serious claims about President Trump’s involvement in a number of controversies that have plagued his administration. Which historic incidents in U.S. presidential history do these controversies reflect?
Cohen’s testimony included accusations about President Trump’s knowledge of releasing hacked Democratic emails. He also alleged that the President paid hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. The investigations are still ongoing, but America has seen the things he’s accused of before. Presidents have lied under oath, obstructed justice, and more. Let’s look at some past incidents.
The Cover-Up Is Worse Than the Crime
“Our presidents are much like their fellow citizens and they sometimes stray into the criminality of lying, obstructing justice, and the like,” said Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “We have a saying in Washington—one you’ve probably heard. It’s that the cover-up is always worse than the crime.”
Mr. Rosenzweig’s adage rings true for the Watergate scandal and for President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Watergate scandal began its life as a simple burglary. Then it became a series of cover-ups and bribes culminating in President Nixon’s resignation. Bill Clinton “took a tawdry affair with a White House intern and managed to transform it into an impeachment charge by lying about the encounter while under oath—not once, but twice,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.
The Frost/Nixon tapes and the Clinton impeachment show how things get for a president who was caught lying. President Nixon famously tried to withhold surveillance tapes relevant to the Watergate incident from prosecutors. President Clinton scrambled to make semantics of the word “is” to escape impeachment charges for perjury. Unfortunately, when an elected official in such high office commits a falsehood, it tarnishes our system of government.
When the President Does It, Is It Illegal?
President Nixon said to David Frost, “When the president does it, it is not illegal.” He implied that since the president heads the executive branch of government, any act he takes while in office facilitates justice to his discretion.
“From this perspective, the president has the Constitutional authority to end any federal criminal investigation at any time and for any reason because the DOJ, after all, works for him,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. It’s a view that has been challenged as President Trump has been rumored to be considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His firing would end the investigations into Trump’s involvement with foreign agents to sway the 2016 general election.
“Traditionally, to be charged criminal offense, an individual must have engaged in an act that has two distinct components—what the law calls actus reus and mens rea,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. “Those are two Latin phrases that mean, respectively, a guilty act and a guilty mind.” Mr. Rosenzweig explained that if you consider killing a king, but don’t, you have a guilty mind but not a guilty act. If you accidentally hit someone because you have an epileptic fit, you have a guilty act but not a guilty mind. “Crimes, traditionally, require both components. If both are present, I’m likely to be charged with assault and sent off to jail.”
The world holds its breath to see how Robert Mueller’s investigations will result for President Trump. Meanwhile, we can look to historical events and prepare for any eventuality by considering the circumstances of past presidential acts of wrongdoing. Whether committing obstruction of justice or perjury, we sadly have presidential examples on which to fall back.
Paul Rosenzweig, J.D., contributed to this article. Mr. Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.