Congress

Michael Cohen draws intricate picture of how Trump operated his business, personal empire

“Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization was to protect Trump”

Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, described in intimate detail Wednesday how his onetime boss ran his real estate empire and conducted his personal business — from the intense loyalty he demanded of his top advisers, to deploying Trump Organization employees to physically intimidate his enemies, to fudging his financial statements whenever it suited his interests.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee warned their Democratic counterparts that Cohen is someone whose testimony could not be trusted — Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s top Republican, called him an “admitted liar.” Cohen will report to prison in May for a three-year sentence after pleading guilty last year to one count of lying to Congress and multiple counts of financial fraud.

That warning did not stop the majority from questioning Cohen for roughly six hours Wednesday, as the former Trump fixer implicated the president, his two oldest sons, and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg in running an operation rife with financial fraud, deceit and intimidation tactics.

“Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization was to protect Trump,” Cohen testified. “Every day, we knew we were going to lie for him. That became the norm.”

Also watch: What you missed from Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony

Cohen called the president a “cheat,” a “racist,” and a “conman,” and suggested those traits had worn off on his two oldest sons.

At multiple points during his testimony, Cohen implicated the sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, in an illegal hush money scheme to buy the silence of two of the president’s former mistresses, onetime Playboy model Karen McDougal and pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known by her stage name of Stormy Daniels.

“There were three other people who were equally involved in this conspiracy?” California Democrat Ro Khanna asked, referring to the Trump sons and Weisselberg.

“Yes,” Cohen replied.

“And you’re the only one who’s in jail for this?” Khanna said.

“Going to jail, yes,” Cohen corrected him.

Instead of admitting to the affairs with Clifford and McDougal to his wife when news outlets reported them in early 2018, Trump called Cohen and had him “explain” the situation over speakerphone to the first lady.

“Not only did I lie to the American people, I lied to the first lady,” Cohen said.

Providing copies of financial statements from the early 2010s that Trump allegedly had Cohen send Deutsche Bank and other financial institutions, Cohen described how the president would simultaneously inflate the value of his assets on financial statements in order to apply for substantial bank loans and deflate the value of those same assets on tax forms to receive breaks from the IRS.

In 2014, Trump sent Deutsche Bank the statements as he was inquiring about a loan so he could put together an offer to buy the Buffalo Bills NFL franchise. Owning an NFL team had long been a dream of the president’s.

“I believe these numbers are inflated,” Cohen said of the financial statements Trump gave Deutsche Bank, though the former lawyer did not elaborate — and Democrats did not ask follow-up questions — on what had led him to that conclusion.

Massachusetts Democrat Stephen F. Lynch indicated after the hearing that the Oversight panel will be sending transcripts of Cohen’s testimony and the documents he produced over to the Ways and Means Committee as it builds its legal case to pursue Trump’s tax returns through the Treasury Department.

Democrats are expected to argue that they need the president’s tax documents to cross-reference them with the information on the financial statements he sent to Deutsche Bank.

Throughout his testimony, Cohen described in detail the manner in which he felt Trump pressured him and other Trump Organization representatives to lie to the media — and even Congress — about the president’s dealings without explicitly telling them to do so.

“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates,” Cohen said in his opening statement.

In a meeting in the early summer of 2017, Cohen met with Trump and Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, to talk about Cohen’s upcoming testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, he recalled Wednesday in response to questions from Democrats Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and John Sarbanes of Maryland.

At that meeting, Trump did not specifically direct Cohen to lie. But he repeated statements that he had delivered publicly, that there was “no Russia, no collusion,” and that the investigations into such claims were “witchcraft,” Cohen said.

The White House’s “goal” for Cohen’s congressional testimony about the president’s dealings with Russia for a Trump Tower in Moscow was “to stay on message,” Cohen said.

“He’d been saying that to me for many months. At the end of the day, I knew exactly what he wanted me to say,” Cohen said.

Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie countered Connolly’s questioning by asking Cohen whether Trump had explicitly told him to lie to Congress or if Cohen had simply relied on his “intuition.”

“Did you at that time … do what you thought Mr. Trump wanted you to do, not specifically what he’s told you to do?” Massie asked.

“At times, yes,” Cohen responded.

“So you just went on your intuition?” Massie said.

“I don’t know if I would call it intuition as much as i would just say, my knowledge of what he wanted, because it happened before and I knew what he had wanted,” Cohen said.

Asked by Massie how Trump would communicate indirectly with subordinates, Cohen replied, “That’s how he speaks. He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders — he speaks in a code. And I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

When Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, one of the more soft-spoken members of Congress, asked him whether Trump would threaten his business adversaries with physical violence, Cohen responded that he did not do it himself — rather, he would “use others within the Trump Organization.”

Cohen opened up about his former boss’s attempts to “catch and kill” whispers about him that could have led to negative coverage in the media, even rumors that Cohen testified he believed had no basis in truth.

Trump sought to bury such stories through his allies at American Media, Inc. — even though Cohen said he believes they are not true. The boss employed the “catch and kill” tactic on a secret videotape allegedly showing Trump striking his wife, Melania Trump, in an elevator and bought the silence of a bellhop at one of his hotels who overheard that Trump had had a “love child” with a former housemaid.

Cohen forcefully asserted that he did not believe either of these rumors had merit. But Trump had his friend and owner of the National Enquirer tabloid magazine, David Pecker, pay thousands of dollars to purchase silence from the sources of those rumors anyway, Cohen testified.

“Is there a love child?” Rep. Jackie Speier asked Cohen.

“There is not, to the best of my knowledge,” he replied.

“So [Pecker] paid off someone about a love child that doesn’t exist?” the California Democrat asked.

“Correct. It was about $15,000,” Cohen said.

Cohen will meet with lawmakers again Thursday, this time behind closed doors and in the House Intelligence Committee. He is expected to surrender to prison on May 6.

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