How Cohen’s testimony threatens the president — and a roadmap to Trump's possible defenses
It was some of the most riveting testimony Congress has heard in years: Michael Cohen, alternately contrite and combative, offered up damning new evidence about Donald Trump’s efforts to do business in Russia, his finances, his payoffs to women and his ethics. While calling the president a “con man” and a “cheat,” Cohen, a convicted felon, provided a veritable roadmap for congressional investigators for the rest of the year —one that could potentially lead to House impeachment proceedings against the president.
But as revealing as it was, Cohen’s account of Trump’s alleged misdeeds only goes so far – and contains significant gaps that could offer more than enough wiggle room for the president’s defenders.
Here is a rundown on some of Cohen’s major claims and how Congress and the public can assess them:
The Trump Tower Moscow project
Cohen directly tied Trump to the project to build a lucrative Trump Tower in Moscow, saying that even while running for president in 2015 and 2016, the then GOP candidate asked him on at least a half dozen occasions for updates on the deal. “How’s it going in Russia?” Trump would ask, according to Cohen’s account.
The mere existence of the project would seem on its face to implicate Trump in a major deception of the public. Throughout the campaign and well into his presidency, Trump repeatedly denied having any business interests in Russia even while Cohen, on Trump’s behalf, was negotiating with a Kremlin official to build the tallest tower in Europe in the Russian capital. Moreover, Cohen testified, he also briefed Trump’s children, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, both of them executives in the Trump Organization, about the deal.
But Cohen stopped short of saying that Trump directed him to lie about the subject. Before he appeared before Congress in 2017 and falsely testified that his pursuit of the tower project ended in January 2016, Cohen reviewed that testimony with Trump himself at the White House as well as with one of his lawyers, Jay Sekulow, in May 2017 and let them edit his remarks. Yet the president never ordered him to perjure himself. Instead, Cohen testified, he simply inferred that’s what Trump wanted him to say.
“He doesn’t give you an order,” Cohen told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “He speaks in code. I understand that code.” Moreover, Cohen offered up a plausible explanation for Trump’s pursuit of the deal: He never expected to win the presidency anyway, so why shouldn’t he continue to try to make money? He viewed his campaign as an event that would amount to the greatest infomercial in political history."
The Trump Tower meeting in New York
In the so-called Russia “collusion” case against Trump, no event looms larger than the meeting on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower in New York when Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort sat down with a delegation of visiting Russians at Trump Tower. The meeting was convened after Trump Jr. received an email from music publicist Rob Goldstone that the visiting Russians would turn over “very high level and sensitive information” about Hillary Clinton that would be “part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump has consistently denied that he ever knew about the meeting, and Trump Jr. has testified that never even told his father about it. Cohen said he knew nothing about the meeting as well but offered up this “peculiar” clue: Around that time, Cohen testified, he was in a room with Trump when Trump Jr. came in and walked behind his father’s desk, leaned over and whispered, “The meeting is all set,” at which point Trump replied “OK, good…let me know.” Cohen said that all this prompted him to conclude well after the fact that the “peculiar” conversation was about the notorious Trump Tower meeting. But he doesn’t know for sure, leaving open the possibility that Trump Jr. could have been referring to lots of other meetings that had nothing to do with Russia.
As for collusion itself, Cohen made clear he has no direct knowledge that Trump conspired with Russian operatives during the 2016 election and he flatly denied one of the more sensational allegations in the so-called “dossier” written by former British spy Christopher Steele: that he flew to Prague in the summer of 2016 to meet with Russian agents about paying off hackers in Europe. “I’ve never been to Prague,” Cohen testified for the first time in public, repeating an assertion he has made many times before, although never under oath. “I’ve never been to the Czech Republic.”
Trump’s advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks disclosures
This was one of the more vivid accounts in Cohen’s testimony. He was in Trump’s office around July 19, 2016, when Trump’s longtime assistant, Rhona Graff, announced, “Roger Stone on Line 1.” Trump took the call and put Stone, his longtime political adviser, on speaker. Stone told him that within a couple of days there would be a “massive” dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump’s response: “Wouldn’t that be great.”
This is the first time anybody has ever implicated Trump in knowing about the WikiLeaks disclosures before they were public and would seem even more significant since that’s exactly what WikiLeaks did just a few days later, releasing thousands of stolen Democratic National Committee emails that had been hacked by Russian military intelligence. In an email to Yahoo News, Julian Assange's lawyer Barry Pollack denied that his client had such a conversation with Stone. “Roger Stone did not have the telephone call Michael Cohen described Stone claiming to have had with Julian Assange,” he wrote.
But even if Cohen’s account is entirely accurate, it could arguably prove much less than it seems to on the surface. Cohen makes clear that Stone never told Trump what was in these emails or where they were from.
And in a recent indictment, special counsel Robert Mueller never accuses Stone of communicating directly with Assange. Instead, he charges, Stone lied about his efforts to learn through cut-outs — conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and talk show host Randy Credico — what Assange had and was prepared to release. Was Stone lying to Trump as well?
Moreover, Republicans pointed to a June 12, 2016, Guardian story quoting Assange as saying he was about to release more damaging emails about Clinton, suggesting that Stone was merely repeating to Trump information that was already public.
Hush money payoffs to women.
This was one of the crimes that Cohen has plead guilty to and for which he is going to prison: Making a $130,000 “hush money” payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to conceal a sexual relationship she had with Trump, a payoff that federal prosecutors have charged was a violation of campaign finance laws because it was made for the purpose of influencing an election. Cohen’s account of Trump agreeing to reimburse him for these payments was vivid: “In February 2017, one month into his presidency, I’m visiting President Trump in the Oval Office for the first time. It’s truly awe-inspiring, he’s showing me around and pointing to different paintings, and he says to me something to the effect of ‘Don’t worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming.” Cohen submitted copies of those checks as part of his testimony.
Whether Cohen’s testimony is enough to implicate Trump in a violation of campaign finance laws is unclear. Although he pointed out that the Trump campaign was highly nervous about stories about Trump and women after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape on Oct. 7—Trump’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks even called him about it—Cohen never actually testified Trump directed these payments be made for the purpose of benefiting his campaign. And Republicans noted that, as Trump’s lawyer, it was Cohen’s job to advise Trump of the potential legal consequences of the payments, something he acknowledged he never did.
Still, Cohen testified that Trump told him to lie about the payments, saying the president called him in February 2018 and told him to say he was he “was not knowledgeable” of these reimbursements and he “wasn’t knowledgeable of” Cohen’s actions. Perhaps wary of trying to build a case against Trump over his efforts to conceal a sexual affair, House oversight chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., highlighted a different potential crime by Trump: his failure to report his debts to Cohen when he filed his first financial disclosure form as president in 2017. (Trump later amended his form in 2018 to reflect the debt.)
Trump’s misuse of the Trump Foundation.
Although it got scant attention in the questioning, Cohen in his prepared testimony provided a graphic account of how the president abused his tax exempt charity for personal purposes. A prime example: an auction for a portrait of Trump that he wanted for himself. As Cohen told it, the 2014 auction was being held in the Hamptons on Long Island. Trump arranged for a “fake” straw bidder—a reference to pharmaceutical executive Stewart Rahr, a friend of Trump—to bid $60,000 for the painting. Trump then had the Trump Foundation reimburse the bidder and kept the painting for himself, an apparent abuse of a tax-exempt charity for personal purposes. The Trump Foundation has since dissolved after being sued for fraud by the New York Attorney General’s office, but Cohen’s testimony could potentially spur a criminal investigation.
Trump’s Tax Returns.
Cohen testified late in the day that Trump at one point told him he didn’t want to release his tax returns because he didn’t want “tax experts” from think tanks “ripping through his returns” and finding fault that could lead to an audit and penalties. But Trump had maintained throughout the campaign that he wouldn’t release his returns because they already were under audit (although legally an audit would not stop him from making them public.) Under questioning by Rep. Jimmy Gomez, Cohen said he had asked Trump for the IRS audit letter, but had never received it, and had seen no evidence the audit was real.
But Cohen offered another intriguing clue into Trump’s refusal to do so. In 2008, he testified, that Trump showed him that he had gotten a $10 million tax refund from the IRS and then said: “he could not believe how stupid the government was for giving ‘someone like him’ that much money back.” The revelation suggests a reason for Trump’s concealment of his tax returns that has not previously been discussed: to conceal big tax refunds that would not wear will with the voters.