Michael Cohen describes a culture of criminality around Trump
WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen, once among President Trump’s most ardent defenders, turned on him in a combative congressional hearing Wednesday, describing a culture of nonstop lying around Trump involving his alleged mistresses, inflated personal wealth and secret efforts to build Europe’s tallest skyscraper in Moscow.
Cohen, who worked at Trump’s side as his personal lawyer for more than a decade, suggested Trump had skirted or violated federal banking, tax and campaign finance laws, and indicated that some are already under investigation.
The daylong testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform provided riveting political theater, with the former lawyer repeatedly saying he was ashamed of his actions even as he held his ground against fierce attacks on his credibility by Republicans.
He provided fresh details on scandals that have already come to light — most notably displaying a $35,000 check signed by Trump in 2017 to reimburse Cohen for an alleged hush-money payment — and he provided House Democrats with new clues for their probes into a president he described as a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”
'This is the first time in the history of Congress we have someone testifying here who has already been convicted of lying to Congress’: House committee feuds over Cohen’s credibility. Watch the highlights of his testimony on @ReutersTV playlist: https://t.co/8a7EfedemC pic.twitter.com/vCz1E7QJLh
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) February 28, 2019
“I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience,” Cohen said.
Asked about his most recent conversation with the president, which occurred last year, Cohen said he couldn’t discuss it because it was “currently being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in Manhattan. He added that he is in “constant contact” with those prosecutors.
The president has called Cohen a “rat” and a liar, and the president’s Republican allies spent the contentious hearing insisting Cohen should not be trusted because he previously lied to Congress.
— AFP news agency (@AFP) February 28, 2019
Cohen suggested that Trump had provided inaccurate financial statements to Deutsche Bank when he wanted a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills football team. And he said Trump indirectly encouraged him to lie about his pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“At the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me, ‘There’s no business in Russia,’ and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing,” Cohen said. “In his way, he was telling me to lie.”
Rep. Speier: How many times did Mr. Trump ask you to threaten an individual or entity on his behalf?
Cohen: Quite a few times.
Speier: 50 times?
Speier: 100 times?
Speier: 200 times?
Speier: 500 times?
Cohen: Probably, over the 10 years. pic.twitter.com/VSJheUCu32
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 28, 2019
Trump repeatedly asked about the status of the negotiations in Moscow during the campaign, Cohen said. He said Trump pushed the project — which was never built — because it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and because he didn’t think he would beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
After Trump won the election, Cohen said, lawyers for the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reviewed his prepared testimony for congressional committees that were investigating Russian interference in the election.
Cohen later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about how long he had pursued the Moscow project.
The false statements led to one of seven criminal charges to which Cohen has pleaded guilty. He is scheduled to start serving a three-year prison sentence on May 6, but he’s hoping to reduce his time behind bars by continuing to cooperate with prosecutors.
Cohen said he was not aware of “direct evidence” that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russians during the presidential campaign, but he conceded that Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin was “odd” and there were “so many dots that all seem to lead in the same direction.”
He also shared a new story about an alleged conversation between Trump and Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser and Republican operative.
Cohen said he listened on a speakerphone when Stone told Trump before the Democratic National Convention that WikiLeaks was going to be releasing emails damaging to Clinton’s campaign.
Trump responded by saying something like “wouldn’t that be great,” Cohen recalled.
Stone, who is under indictment for false statements about his conversations involving WikiLeaks, denied Wednesday that the conversation took place.
“Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true,” he said in a text message.
Although Cohen spoke briefly in court last year, the hearing marked his first opportunity to share his account with the public. He also testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and will do the same Thursday to the House Intelligence Committee.
“It is deeply disturbing and it should be troubling to all Americans,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in his opening statement. He said Cohen’s testimony would be one step “in our search for the truth.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee’s top Republican, blasted Democrats for turning a “convicted perjurer” into a “star witness.” He also accused Cohen of turning on Trump because he didn’t get a job in the White House.
“That’s the point isn’t it? You didn’t get brought to the dance,” Jordan said.
Cohen began working for Trump more than a decade ago, and he told the committee that “never in a million years” would he imagine that the billionaire businessman — whom he consistently referred to as “Mr. Trump,” not “the president” — would go on to the White House.
During the campaign, Cohen helped the president cover up two alleged affairs with hush money. He arranged a $150,000 payment from the National Enquirer to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate, and personally paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, a porn star.
Cohen said Trump asked him to make the payment out of his own pocket using his home equity line of credit to cover his tracks. Cohen was later reimbursed through the Trump Organization.
Although Trump later denied knowing anything about the scheme, Cohen said, “He knew about everything.”
Let this sink in: Cohen on his 1st visit to Trump in the Oval Office "It’s truly awe-inspiring. He’s showing me all around & pointing to different paintings. & he says to me…‘Don’t worry, Michael, your Jan & Feb reimbursement checks are coming.’" https://t.co/bim5ibGx1p
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) February 28, 2019
Cohen even presented the committee with a copy of a check for $35,000 signed by the president on Aug. 1, 2017, one of several payments to Cohen.
The check showed that the president personally reimbursed his lawyer for his role in an illegal scheme. Among the charges to which Cohen pleaded guilty are two campaign finance violations because the hush-money payments were intended to influence the election and were not properly disclosed.
In addition to allegations of wrongdoing, Cohen described his former boss as a vain and self-centered man.
“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great,” he said.
He recalled being asked to find a straw buyer to purchase a portrait of Trump during an auction — Trump wanted to ensure the painting fetched the highest price of any item there. Once the portrait was purchased for $60,000, Trump used his charitable foundation to reimburse the straw buyer.
— CNN (@CNN) February 28, 2019
At the same time, Trump strived to conceal potentially embarrassing aspects of his life. Cohen said he was directed to contact the president’s high school and colleges to ensure his transcripts were not released.
Trump also told Cohen to tell reporters that he received a medical deferment to avoid serving in the Vietnam War even though he provided his lawyer with no evidence that he actually had bone spurs in his feet.
“You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam,” Cohen recalled Trump saying.
What did we learn from today's Cohen hearing?
— Cohen is making remarkable allegations
— There's a roadmap for ongoing investigations
— Cohen was critical, to a point
— The is a White House problem, not just a campaign one https://t.co/y88veSST7q
— Jeremy Herb (@jeremyherb) February 28, 2019
Republicans repeatedly used Cohen’s original lie to Congress as part of a full-fledged attack on his credibility. They also highlighted his other guilty pleas for tax evasion and bank fraud, crimes that were unrelated to his work for Trump.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., called Cohen a “pathological liar.” Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., said he was a “fake witness” and “his presence here is a travesty.”
Cohen chided Republicans for focusing more on him than the president.
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now. For 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” he said.
Rep. Gosar: "You're a pathological liar. You don't know truth from falsehood. So again–"
Michael Cohen: "Sorry–are you referring to me or the President?"
Gosar: "Hey! This is my time! When I ask you a question, I'll ask for an answer."
— The Hill (@thehill) February 28, 2019
Cohen added: “The more people that follow Mr. Trump — as I did blindly — are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he had fewer concerns given that Cohen had already pleaded guilty as part of the Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“I have far less questions about his credibility given the fact that the Mueller investigation is ongoing and that obviously if he lies to Congress he’ll face substantially more time in jail now,” Hoyer said. “So, I think that it makes it much more likely that he’s going to be careful to tell the truth.”