By Robert A. Vella
The President’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee today for over seven hours. The dynamics of the public hearing displayed specific questioning from Democratic members who wanted to confirm existing information or to acquire new information regarding potential crimes and misconduct committed by Donald Trump, his family, and his associates. In contrast, Republican committee members focused exclusively on trying to discredit Cohen and were completely disinterested in anything else. Since Cohen will begin a 3-year prison sentence in a few weeks, and any false statements made in his testimony would surely elicit additional criminal charges and jail time, he had great incentive to be truthful; and, that’s exactly how he was perceived by most fair-minded observers.
Cohen was very careful in his statements, made no unwarranted assertions, and even defended Trump when committee members brought up certain stories in which he believed to be untrue. For this reason, Republican efforts to discredit him were ineffective at best and were transparently partisan at worst. However, Cohen’s characterization of Trump as “a racist, a con man, and a cheat” did give Republicans ammunition to fire back indignantly even though it was accurate in my opinion.
The substance of Cohen’s testimony was expected to be politically damaging to the president and there’s little doubt now that it was damaging; although, it was quite surprising that his testimony would be legally damaging as well. In his opening remarks, Cohen submitted documentary evidence which strongly supported his accusations. Included were checks signed by Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Allen Weisselberg (CFO of the Trump Organization) as reimbursements for Cohen’s hush money payments to women Trump had affairs with (i.e. Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal) which Trump wanted to keep secret during the 2016 presidential election campaign. The reimbursements are especially relevant because they were made after the president took office in 2017. Also included were falsified financial statements used to overstate Trump’s assets for fraudulent purposes and used to understate his tax liability. This evidence could be used to federally prosecute Trump for campaign finance violations (Trump has already been named as unindicted co-conspirator “Individual-1” in the criminal guilty plea of Michael Cohen), financial fraud (i.e. bank fraud, insurance fraud, wire fraud), tax evasion, and possibly other crimes such as racketeering (i.e. RICO charges). The prosecutorial jurisdiction would likely involve the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) which Cohen admitted he is still cooperating with in ongoing criminal investigations.
Cohen related other details which could be even more problematic for Trump and which might involve the Special Counsel’s Office of Robert Mueller. He described a meeting he had with Trump in 2016 (before the Democratic Party Convention) when a call came in from Trump ally and longtime GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone (who has been criminally indicted by Mueller). The call was put on speakerphone and Cohen overheard Stone telling Trump that WikiLeaks was ready to publish hacked emails that would damage the Hillary Clinton campaign. Note that Stone has denied this conversation and has publicly stated that President Trump also denied it in his written testimony to the Mueller investigation. Cohen described another meeting with Trump in 2016 when Donald Trump Jr. walked in and informed his father that “the meeting was set” – apparently referring to the infamous Trump Tower meeting on June 9th of that year between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and at least five other people including Russian nationals.
Cohen said that he didn’t have any direct knowledge of Trump’s collusion with Russia, but also said that he did suspect such collusion. Additionally, Cohen stated that Trump didn’t explicitly order him to lie to Congress about how Trump’s negotiations with Russians to build a Trump Tower project in Moscow had actually continued far into the 2016 presidential election campaign, but that Trump’s legal team had edited his written testimony and that it was implicitly understood that he should lie.
During his 10-year service to Trump, Cohen stated – rather astonishingly – that he had intimidated and threatened adversaries on Trump’s behalf at least 500 times. Recalling his many discussions with Trump, Cohen said that Trump didn’t want to publicly release his tax returns because he feared being audited. In his closing remarks, Cohen conveyed the ominous warning that if Trump loses his reelection bid in 2020 “there won’t be a peaceful transition of power.”
The Department of Justice has a huge dilemma on its hands. If Robert Mueller doesn’t have sufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Russians, and if he won’t prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice because of his institutionalist adherence to arbitrary DOJ policy precluding the indictment of a sitting U.S. president, and if his anticipated report on collusion to Congress is withheld from the public or whitewashed (which would effectively ruin an attempt by Congress to impeach the president), and if Attorney General William Barr prevents the SDNY from prosecuting the Trump Organization, then it will profoundly undermine the nation’s constitutional foundation asserting that no one is above the law. That day, should it come, would be an historic tragedy brought to fruition by the very people duty-bound to stop it.
Further reading: Michael Cohen to Congress: ‘I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore’