Limited scope of public Michael Cohen testimony might disappoint those looking to topple Trump
Oversight committee will leave questions about collusion with Russians to Intel hearing on Thursday
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, is reportedly primed to out his old boss as a criminal, liar, and racist on Wednesday when he appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
And yet, the scope of the Oversight Committee’s planned questioning has its limitations, limitations that are likely to leave the Democratic Party’s most teeth-gnashing Trump opponents feeling let down.
The committee’s Democrats plan to keep their questions for Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year for lying to Congress, confined mostly to the domestic arena.
Chairman Elijah Cummings has said Democrats will grill Cohen on $280,000 in reimbursements he allegedly received from Trump in 2016 for hush payments to two of the president’s former mistresses, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels — a crime if the payments were intended to affect the outcome of the 2016 election.
Watch: Judiciary and Oversight subpoena power, explained
Cohen is expected to cough up financial statements prepared by the president’s accountant that show how he dodged taxes by simultaneously inflating and deflating his net worth whenever it best suited his pocketbook.
And The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have all reported that the convicted lawyer is prepared to paint the president on Wednesday in negative strokes as a liar and a racist who has denigrated the intelligence of black voters.
Those questions could produce any assortment of salacious headlines. But they might not deliver the kind of devastating blow to the president that the most hardcore anti-Trump Democratic activists and voters expect or crave.
Cummings has not indicated that he will ask Cohen, for instance, about the veracity of a BuzzFeed report from January that Trump directed him to lie to Congress about negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow in 2016.
“We get a chance — under oath, in front of the world — to ask that question,” Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic fundraiser who has spent millions of dollars of his own money on a petition campaign to impeach Trump, said in an interview with Roll Call.
“On Wednesday they should ask that question: ‘Did he break the law — which he has admitted to doing — at the behest of his client, or did he do it on his own [accord]?’ Which would be preposterous,” Steyer said.
Questions about whether the president or anyone in his inner circle colluded with Russians or any other foreign nationals to win the 2016 election likely won’t wend their way into the public hearing Wednesday, either.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the Democrats’ plans for the public hearing confirmed that members have been advised to avoid such inquiries that rope in questions about Trump’s ties to foreigners and instead leave those to the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the president’s finances and business relations with Russia and other foreign countries. The Intel Committee is meeting with Cohen on Thursday behind closed doors.
Democratic members can, of course, go off-script, but it would be an extreme risk to stick a needle into such a highly sensitive thread of inquiry without the consensus authorization of the rest of Democrats on the committee.
The special counsel investigation of Robert S. Mueller III remains ongoing. Democrats don’t want to fall into Mueller’s bad graces by pushing Cohen to testify in public on a line of inquiry the special counsel is still probing, lawmakers have said.
Cohen is bringing documentation to back up his claims and to rebut Republican cries that he is a convicted liar whose testimony in 2019 is as worthwhile as a payphone.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed Cohen as a “disgraced felon.”
“It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies,” Sanders said, even though Cohen was convicted for lying about Trump’s ongoing negotiations in 2016 for a Trump Tower in Moscow that continued well after the date he told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 that they had ended.
Oversight Committee Republicans, including ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio, have echoed those statements.
Even though Cummings has ceded most questions about Trump’s financial entanglements abroad to the House Intelligence and Financial Services Committees, he still speculated to reporters that the Cohen hearing “may very well be a turning point in our country’s history.”
Cohen will shed light on the payments to McDougal and Daniels, which Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler has said, if proven true, are impeachable offenses.
Cohen is expected to report to prison in May and is seeking a reduction in his sentence.
He is expected to take the witness stand in the Oversight Committee hearing room at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Watch: Trump blasts former fixer Michael Cohen