Michael Cohen Oversight Hearings: Trump Loses Control
Overall, Republicans did little to debunk Cohen’s specific claims or to defend the president on substance. Democrats also struggled to break much new ground early on, but managed to extract fresh information later in the hearing.
One of the most effective questioners was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who asked a concise and effective series of inquiries toward the end of the session. Under Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning, Cohen said that Trump had submitted inflated estimates of his assets to insurance companies, which could constitute fraud. He also told her that Trump had deflated the value of properties to lower his tax bill.
Trump has broken long-standing precedent by refusing to release his tax returns. (Democrats have vowed to use congressional power to obtain them.) The president has claimed that he cannot release them, because they are under audit, although the IRS has confirmed that there is no legal impediment to his doing so. But Trump has also never proved that he is under audit, and Cohen told Representative Jimmy Gomez that he didn’t know of any proof that the president’s claim is true.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said. “I asked for a copy of the audit so that I could use it in terms of my statements to the press, and I was never able to obtain one.”
Cohen indicated that his previous, false testimony had not only been reviewed but also edited by White House lawyers. Specifically, he said Jay Sekulow, who represents the president, and Abbe Lowell, who represents Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, had edited it. (Sekulow, in a statement, called Cohen’s claim “completely false.”)
Most intriguingly, Cohen on several occasions declined to answer questions, citing ongoing investigations by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He said he was aware of improper conduct or violations of the law by Donald Trump but could not describe them in detail.
While Cohen’s past lies make all of his testimony subject to close scrutiny, he performed well on the stand, remaining mostly calm in the face of Republican attacks that sought to rile him. And Cohen bolstered his credibility by declining to speculate about collusion and some other topics about which he said he had no knowledge. He said Stone was acting as a free agent, not at Trump’s direction. He also rejected claims of a secret Trump love child and the existence of an alleged video of Trump striking his wife, saying the president would not do such a thing. These moments undermined the idea that Cohen is an implacable Trump hater.
It’s too early to assess the impact of Wednesday’s hearing. While it produced a long list of interesting leads and new information, many of those will require careful investigation. While some observers likened the hearing to former White House Counsel John Dean’s testimony against Richard Nixon, there’s no way to tell if it will be similarly consequential. Given the vast attention paid to Cohen’s remarks, the hearing might refocus public attention on many of the scandals surrounding Trump, some of which have only gradually built—or they might be lost on a public already numb to Trump’s behavior.