Michael Cohen’s appearance before the House oversight committee on Wednesday marked the beginning of Democrats’ investigation into President Donald Trump’s potential high crimes and misdemeanors. The testimony provided by the president’s former fixer yielded important new leads for House Democrats to follow as they move forward with their inquiry.
Cohen served as Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer from 2006 through 2018 and as deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee from 2017 to 2018. He pleaded guilty in August 2018 to violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money on the president’s orders and committing bank and tax fraud. He later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he said that the Trump Organization’s talks with Russian officials about a $300 million Trump Tower Moscow project ended in January 2016. Those talks continued until June 2016 ― after Trump won the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump is a con man, a racist and a cheat, Cohen testified. The president is also the subject of an as-yet-undisclosed investigation, he revealed. In between partisan shouting and grandstanding questioning, Cohen provided a roadmap to the committee of individuals to call to testify and documents to obtain to reveal more answers to all of the questions about this president.
There’s an undisclosed Trump investigation we just learned about.
“Is there any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump that we haven’t yet discussed today?” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) asked Cohen.
“Yes,” Cohen replied. “And those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
That controversial BuzzFeed story was basically right.
BuzzFeed reported that Trump ordered Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal in January. The report set off a red alert in Washington as Democratic lawmakers issued an en masse call to “impeach, if true.” It also led special counsel Robert Mueller’s office to issue a rare statement challenging the veracity of the report. BuzzFeed stood by its reporting. It turns out that the report was mostly true, according to Cohen.
Trump never directly told Cohen to lie to Congress, but the president indicated what the party line should be, Cohen told the committee. He did this by repeating the lie to Cohen, which constituted a coded direction, he said.
“He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in code, and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade,” Cohen said.
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, and Abbe Lowell, son-in-law Jared Kushner’s lawyer, reviewed and edited Cohen’s August 2017 testimony, in which he lied to Congress, according to Cohen. By naming Sekulow and Lowell, Cohen was pointing to potential future witnesses for the House oversight committee.
Trump inflated his net worth to banks and insurance companies. That would be bank and insurance fraud.
Trump inflated his net worth to Forbes magazine in 2013 as part of an effort to get a bank loan to purchase the Buffalo Bills football franchise, Cohen said.
Documents produced by Cohen indicated that the net worth Trump reported to Forbes as part of the magazine’s ranking of billionaires jumped from $4.56 billion in 2012 to $8.66 billion in 2013. The jump can be solely attributed to the inclusion of a $4 billion estimate for Trump’s “brand value.” He had never previously included this value when he reported his net worth to the magazine.
The magazine’s report of his net worth and the document stating it that he provided to the magazine were used by Trump in an attempt to obtain a bank loan from Deutsche Bank to purchase the Bills in 2014. The team was ultimately purchased by billionaire Terry Pegula.
Trump also provided inflated estimates of his net worth to insurance companies, Cohen said under questioning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Cohen suggested Congress talk to Trump Organization officials Ron Lieberman, Matthew Calamari and Allen Weisselberg to learn more.
Trump’s hush-money payments began before Cohen’s employment.
At the center of Cohen’s campaign finance crimes was Trump’s relationship with the National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI Inc. The National Enquirer purchased stories from women about extramarital relationships they had with Trump and then offered the rights to those stories up for Trump to purchase, thus silencing the women. This practice is known as “catch and kill.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Cohen whether Trump purchased other stories from the National Enquirer to kill them. Cohen replied that the “catch and kill” program run by the National Enquirer on Trump’s behalf predated his full-time employment as Trump’s personal lawyer in 2007.
The “catch and kill” file on Trump was so extensive that Trump considered purchasing the “treasure trove” when AMI CEO David Pecker considered a job offer to run Time magazine, Cohen said.
“Not all of them had to do with women,” Cohen added.
Congress should talk to Pecker, Weisselberg, AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten and former National Enquirer editor Barry Levine, according to Cohen. Pecker, Howard and Weisselberg have all been granted immunity by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York in exchange for their cooperation in Cohen’s prosecution.
Trump reimbursed Cohen for hush money while he was president and told him to lie about Trump’s involvement.
Trump reimbursed Cohen for hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels with checks signed while Trump was president. After the payments became public knowledge, Trump told Cohen to tell reporters that Trump had no knowledge of the payments to Daniels. In other words, the president ordered Cohen to lie on his behalf.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) asked Cohen to describe how Trump requested that he lie.
Trump said that Cohen should explain, “He was not knowledgeable of these reimbursements and he wasn’t knowledgeable of my actions,” Cohen explained.
Cohen promised to hand over to Congress all 11 checks written to him by Trump or signed by Donald Trump Jr. and Weisselberg on behalf of the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust.
Don Jr., call your lawyer.
Donald Trump Jr. could now be on the hook for potential campaign finance violations for signing checks to reimburse Cohen for the hush-money payments to Daniels. The president’s oldest son, however, would need to have knowledge that he was breaking campaign finance law when he put his names to those checks. This would make Trump Jr. “Executive 2” in the document of Cohen’s guilty plea.
But that wouldn’t prevent Jr. from potential charges of financial fraud for labeling payments from a corporate entity as for “legal services” when the payments were not in fact for “legal services.”
When asked by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) whether the Southern District of New York was investigating this potential financial fraud, Cohen said that it “could be part of an investigation that’s ongoing.”
That wasn’t even the only revelation about this first-born son.
Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and White House adviser, were both briefed by Cohen about the ongoing negotiations with Russian officials about the Trump Tower Moscow project, Cohen testified. Trump Jr. has testified that he was only “peripherally aware.”
Trump’s tax returns aren’t under audit, and AOC gave a good reason to get them.
After Trump claimed he could not disclose his tax returns to the public during the 2016 campaign because they were under IRS audit, Cohen sought evidence of said audit to help him better defend Trump. He never found any evidence that the president’s taxes were under audit, he testified.
“I presume that he is not under audit,” Cohen said.
The House Ways and Means Committee is discussing whether to use its authority to obtain Trump’s tax returns. One of the stumbling blocks is a desire to present a legitimate public reason to obtain them. Ocasio-Cortez helped make the case when she got the chance to question Cohen.
Just as Trump inflated his assets for banks and insurance companies to obtain loans, he deflated them to tax agencies to lower his tax burden, Cohen testified.
One of the ways Trump did this was by deflating the value of his golf courses and requesting deductions from local tax departments, Cohen explained.
Additionally, Trump also deflated the value of the inheritance he received from his parents in the 1990s, according to a New York Times report.
“Would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“I believe so,” Cohen answered.
Payments to Trump properties go directly into the president’s ― or Cohen’s ― pockets.
One of the main problems with the president’s continued ownership of his multibillion-dollar real estate and entertainment business is that people who want to influence him can put money directly into his pocket without any disclosure.
When Cohen and Weisselberg discussed how the Trump Organization would repay Cohen for the hush-money payments to Daniels he made on the Trump campaign’s behalf, Weisselberg suggested Cohen simply find someone to pay him back through the corporation.
“He asked me whether or not I know anybody that wants to have a party at one of [Trump’s] clubs that could pay me instead, or somebody who may have wanted to become a member of one of the golf clubs,” Cohen said.
Roger Stone told Trump about WikiLeaks’ email dump (but this might not matter).
Roger Stone told Trump over a speakerphone on or about July 18 or 19, 2016, that he had spoken to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who would shortly begin posting emails related to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“It was a short conversation. [Stone] said, ’Mr. Trump, I wanted to let you know I just got off the phone with Julian Assange, and in a couple days there’s going to be a massive dump of emails that is going to hurt [Hillary Clinton’s] campaign,” Cohen said.
It is unclear whether this revelation is actually revelatory at all. Stone may have been boasting about information that he learned simply from being online. WikiLeaks had been telegraphing that it would disclose Clinton-related emails as early as March 2016. Assange has denied ever speaking to Stone over the phone at any time. Stone has also denied ever making the phone call to Trump, a statement that may have violated the court gag order he is under.
What may matter more than whether Stone was boasting or not is that Trump stated that he never spoke to Stone about WikiLeaks in the written testimony he submitted to Mueller. Cohen’s testimony Wednesday directly contradicted this.
OK, but what about the Pee Tape?
“Are you aware of any videotapes that may be the subject of extortion or blackmail?” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) asked.
“I’ve heard about these tapes for a long time,” Cohen replied. “I’ve had many people contact me over the years. I have no reason to believe that that tape exists.”