Michael Cohen’s Damning Portrayal of Trump as a Lying, Racist Crook
At 10:02 on Wednesday morning, Representative Elijah Cummings, the veteran Maryland Democrat who now heads the House Oversight Committee, called his colleagues to order. More than seven hours later, Michael Cohen was still answering questions from the twenty-four Democrats and eighteen Republicans on the panel. What did we learn from this long hearing, which some have compared to the Watergate hearings of 1973 and 1974?
One lesson was to be careful with historical comparisons. Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon; Michael Cohen isn’t John Dean, and today’s Republican Party most certainly isn’t the Republican Party of Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker, Jr., who were G.O.P. representatives on the Senate Watergate Committee. These days, the House G.O.P. membership is a right-wing rabble, and the nation’s capital is a site of unremitting partisan warfare. From the very start of the hearing, Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the committee, and Mark Meadows, who heads up the Freedom Caucus, made clear that their only goal was to attack Cohen’s credibility. Even if the witness had turned up with a copy of the Moscow pee tape and a signed agreement between Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Republican duo and most of their colleagues would have tried to spin it as a Democratic hit job concocted by Lanny Davis and Adam Schiff.
Cohen hadn’t come to the hearing bearing explosives precisely of this nature. He told Representative Jamie Raskin that he had “no reason to believe that tape exists.” At another point, he stated that he had seen no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But he also added that he had his suspicions. “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone,” he said. He claimed that during a July, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower, he witnessed Roger Stone calling in and telling Trump “that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of e-mails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” (WikiLeaks subsequently put out a statement saying no such call took place between Stone and Assange, and Stone said in a statement that Cohen’s testimony was “not true.”)
Cohen also claimed that Trump engaged in criminal behavior from inside the White House relating to the Stormy Daniels payoffs, and this assertion he backed up with documents. After providing the committee with a signed thirty-five-thousand-dollar check from Trump, dated August 1st, 2017—more than six months into Trump’s Presidency—Cohen calmly explained that it was meant “to reimburse me for the hush-money payments I made to cover up his affair with an adult-film star and prevent damage to this campaign.”
To be sure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York essentially asserted, last December, that Trump had been involved in the payoff scheme when it said in a sentencing memorandum that Cohen acted at the direction of “Individual-1.” But it was still instructive to see Cohen saying bluntly and on live television, “For the record: Individual-1 is Donald J. Trump.” It was equally instructive when the California Democrat Katie Hill elicited from Cohen the revelation that, as recently as early last year, when the existence of the payoffs was revealed, Trump was involved in concocting a cover story that he knew nothing about them. “That’s what was discussed to do between myself, Mr. Trump, and Allen Weisselberg,” Cohen said. (Weisselberg is the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.)
Cohen also claimed that he and Weisselberg discussed how to disguise the 2016 payoff to Daniels’s lawyer—Cohen ended up using his own money—and that Donald Trump, Jr., on behalf of the Trump Organization, signed one of the checks that eventually reimbursed him. Late in the afternoon session, Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, zeroed in on these payments. “This is nothing to do with collusion,” he said. “This is garden-variety financial fraud.” Khanna also asked Cohen directly if he was claiming that Trump directed these transactions with Weisselberg and Trump, Jr., as “part of a criminal conspiracy, a financial fraud.” Cohen replied, “Yes.”
If there has been a previous occasion when a President’s personal lawyer has testified to Congress that his client is a common crook, it has been lost to the history books. But that wasn’t the end of Cohen’s damning testimony about the man he also described as “a racist,” “a cheat,” and “a con man.” He provided more details about the extensive efforts, on the part of Trump and himself, to mislead the American public about how long the Trump Organization pursued the Trump Tower Moscow project. Trump has long denied that there was a Russia deal of any type in the works. Cohen, who spent years working assiduously with Felix Sater, another colorful Trump associate, to put together a deal to construct Europe’s tallest building in the Russian capital, knew all along that this was a lie. “So to be clear, Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it,” Cohen said in his opening statement. “He lied about it, because he never expected to win.”
In 2017, Cohen went on, he told congressional investigators, “We stopped negotiating in January, 2016. That was false—our negotiations continued for months during the campaign.” Between January and June of 2016, Cohen added, Trump asked him at least six times about the progress of the Moscow project. And after Trump surprised everybody, himself included, by winning the election, he “did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. . . . 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. In his way, he was telling me to lie.”
For all Cohen’s record of duplicity and lying, which he repeatedly fessed up to during the hearing, this statement had the ring of genuine insider knowledge. To be sure, this was a figure who acted as Trump’s fixer and bruiser for more than ten years, and who recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, making false statements to banks, engaging in campaign-finance violations, and lying to the last Congress. But the very things that made Cohen such a problematic witness—his closeness to Trump and his history of finagling on behalf of his boss and himself—are also what made him a compelling one. This was an account of the darkness, told from within.
A bit later in the hearing, Michigan’s Justin Amash, about the only Republican to show a bit of independence, asked Cohen if he could talk some more about the way in which Trump sometimes communicated his directions indirectly. “Sure,” Cohen replied. “It would be no different than if I said, ‘That’s the nicest-looking tie I’ve ever seen. Isn’t it?’ What are you going to do? Are you going to fight with him? The answer is no. So you say, ‘Yeah, it’s the nicest-looking tie I’ve ever seen.’ That’s how he speaks. 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 decades.”
During a subsequent exchange with Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, Cohen suggested that others around Trump are also in the know, and he appeared to allude directly to the Republicans on the panel who were busy doing the President’s bidding even as he was eight thousand miles away, in Hanoi. “Everybody’s job at the Trump Org was to protect Mr. Trump,” he said. “Every day, most of us knew we were coming in and we were going to lie for him on something. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now in this country. It’s exactly what’s happening here in government.” That statement, too, had the ring of authenticity.