Michael Cohen testimony: 5 things to watch for as Trump fixer spills to Congress

Former Trump lawyer will tell Oversight Committee Trump knew Roger Stone was dealing with WikiLeaks for DNC documents

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings has said the testimony of former Donald Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen “may very well be a turning point in our country’s history.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings has said the testimony of former Donald Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen “may very well be a turning point in our country’s history.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 27, 2019 at 6:00am

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, will testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Wednesday that his old boss is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”

In what Chairman Elijah E. Cummings has told reporters “may very well be a turning point in our country’s history,” the president’s former fixer is expected to provide unprecedented insight into how Trump ran his business empire for more than a decade, details about two potentially illegal hush-money payouts to a Playboy model and an adult film actress during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the psyche and operational quirks of the most powerful man on earth.

Roll Call obtained an advance copy of Cohen’s opening statement before the Oversight Committee late Tuesday evening. 

In the statement, Cohen will assert that Trump, as a presidential candidate, knew that his recently indicted campaign adviser, Roger Stone, was talking with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks dump of Democratic National Committee emails — and that Trump knew of and directed the negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow throughout the 2016 campaign and lied about it because he “never expected to win the election.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty last November of lying to Congress and multiple instances of financial fraud, will begin a three-year prison sentence in May.

But this week he is meeting with the Senate and House Intelligence committees behind closed doors and appearing publicly before the House Oversight panel to “tell his personal story to the American people,” his lawyer, Lanny Davis, said on ABC News’ podcast “The Investigation.”

Watch: Judiciary and oversight subpoena power, explained

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Here are five things to expect from Cohen’s public testimony on Wednesday:

1. Hush money payments 

Cohen will tell lawmakers that Trump committed a campaign finance crime in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election by directing him to pay more than a quarter of a million dollars to his onetime mistresses, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and pornographic actress Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Cohen is expected to bring a copy of a check that he alleges Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse Cohen.

If the payments were intended to keep McDougal and Clifford quiet about their affairs with Trump in order to help his chances in the 2016 election and he did not report them on his campaign finance disclosures — which Cohen and government prosecutors allege is the case — that would be a felony.

Prosecutors in New York in December implicated “Individual 1,” Trump, of the crime in a court filing.

The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said Trump reimbursed Cohen through a retainer fee of $35,000 per month out of his personal family account. If Cohen can in fact provide lawmakers with a copy of the check, that could refute Giuliani’s assertion. 

2. Trump’s taxes 

Cohen will provide lawmakers Trump’s financial statements from 2011 through 2013 that he gave to Deutsche Bank and other institutions — information that could require the president’s tax returns to match up and cross-reference for verification.

Trump has long refused to voluntarily publish his tax returns, breaking with a decades-long tradition of major-party candidates for president making their taxes public.

“My staff is paying attention to all this,” House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal said of the lead-up to Cohen’s public testimony. “We’ve been accruing information, and I’m doing what I said I would do.”

More hawkish anti-Trump groups have criticized the Massachusetts Democrat for taking a slower-than-expected approach to build a legal case to acquire Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department.

Neal played down the speculation on how Cohen’s testimony might aid his committee’s legal case for obtaining the president’s returns.

“I’d hesitate to say that until you hear it, you see it, or witness it yourself. Certainly, we’re mindful of it, yeah,” Neal said.

3. Racism

Cohen is poised not only to implicate the president in crimes, but also to impugn Trump’s character and paint him as a racist and a liar, according to his statement.

Trump’s critics have labeled him a racist throughout his political career for, among a host of other controversial episodes, questioning the citizenship of his predecessor, Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, and for calling Mexicans who illegally cross into the U.S. “rapists” and “criminals.”

Since he has become president, Trump has weathered reports that he referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” and that a tape exists of him using the n-word.

Seven of the Oversight panel’s 24 Democratic members are black, including Cummings, the chairman.

4. Trump International Hotel and emoluments issues

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and other Democrats on the Oversight Committee have for months highlighted a General Services Administration inspector general’s investigation and subsequent report that the GSA’s lawyers neglected to confront constitutional conflict-of-interest issues related to Trump’s lease of the Old Post Office Building after he became president. 

Democrats are expected to grill Cohen on Wednesday on Trump’s involvement in and knowledge of his sprawling business empire and how he views those potential conflicts of interest.

The Old Post Office Building, home to the Trump International Hotel, which crawls nightly with conservative lawmakers, commentators and lobbyists, is managed by the GSA.

Foreign government officials have also stayed and dined at the hotel, a possible violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from accepting emoluments, or payments, from foreign governments and their agents.

Trump has retained an interest in his business empire, against the advice of government ethics experts, and put it in a trust managed by his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. Democrats have decried the trust as a sham and suggested that foreign dignitaries and domestic lobbying groups have lined Trump’s pockets at the hotel in an effort to get in the president’s good graces.

5. ‘Mafia tactics’ and the intimidation of Cohen:

A “rat.” A “serial liar.”

These are the words Trump has used to describe Cohen since he pleaded guilty and provided information to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

Cohen and his lawyers delayed his originally scheduled testimony from earlier this month, citing “ongoing threats” against his family.

And on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before Cohen’s testimony, one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress, Rep. Matt Gaetz, appeared to threaten Cohen for testifying about Trump.

“Hey @MichaelCohen212 – Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…” the Florida Republican tweeted. (Gaetz later deleted his tweet, telling Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter that it was not his intent to threaten Cohen and that he “should have chosen words that better showed my intent.”)

Cummings would certainly put a quick end to any member’s five minutes of questioning Cohen if he or she outs the witness’s alleged affairs on Wednesday.

But such an exchange could lead to fireworks akin to those at a 2018 hearing where GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas asked former FBI agent Peter Strzok, “How many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her about [his affair with Justice Department lawyer] Lisa Page?”

Also worth watching

  • Wednesday’s Cohen hearing is the first oversight hearing for freshman Democratic flamethrowers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna S. Pressley in which they will directly ask a witness about his relationship with the president. Tlaib made waves in her first week in office for promising to “impeach the motherf—er,” referring to Trump. Ocasio-Cortez has the largest social media following of any Democratic House member by a wide margin.
  • Oversight Committee ranking member Jim Jordan has dismissed Cohen as an “admitted liar” who does not deserve a platform in Congress to tell the American public his story. The Ohio Republican and others on the committee have already offered dead-on-arrival measures to alter the scope of the hearing — including a motion bringing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to the witness table — that Democrats swiftly struck down. Look for those efforts to disrupt the hearing to continue Wednesday, forcing Democratic members to remain in their seats to vote them down.

Watch: Trump blasts former fixer Michael Cohen

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