Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee Wednesday was great theater. We saw the president’s longtime fixer decrying his former boss as a racist, cheating con man (and himself as “a fool”); red America’s finest yahoos hooting and hollering about “book deals,” “boxes,” and how “a man’s mouth is his destruction and his lips are the snare of his soul“; and shouting arguments about whether it is possible for a person to be racist if they profit from the labor of dark-skinned people.
But did we actually learn anything consequential from this carnival? Or was it all just a tale told by an idiot — full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing much?
Cohen’s hearing did not radically change our previous understanding of Donald Trump’s legal and political liabilities. But it did produce an allegation or two that, if corroborated, just might. And Cohen’s testimony also provided many less-earth-shattering insights into the Trump-Russia saga. Here’s a quick rundown of the bombshells and edifying tidbits the president’s former fixer provided on Wednesday:
Cohen says that Trump knew that a WikiLeaks’s dump of hacked emails was coming in advance — and wholeheartedly approved of it.
From Cohen’s prepared remarks:
In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. 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 emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”
If this is true, then Trump was aware that one of his associates was in touch with those in possession of stolen Democratic emails when he said, on July 27, 2016, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” It would also suggest that the president’s myriad denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election were even more patently dishonest than we knew.
By itself, Cohen’s allegation does not appear to establish any illegal act. It is not a crime to receive a tip from Roger Stone about forthcoming email dumps. Trump’s liability here is more political than legal. And given that the Trump campaign’s eagerness to capitalize on Russian interference in 2016 has been public knowledge for years at this point, it’s not clear why Cohen’s disclosure would fundamentally alter our nation’s long-stable political equilibrium. But it could make it more difficult for the president to make inroads with the roughly 60 percent of the public that does not approve of him.
Cohen is still assisting prosecutors with (unspecified) investigations.
For understandable reasons, the specter of the American president “colluding” with a foreign power has been the central focus of discourse on the Mueller probe and its associated investigations. But scrutiny of Trump’s business practices seems more likely to uncover prosecutable offenses than an examination of what he knew about Russian interference (and when he knew it) in 2016. Or, at least, this is what Trump himself ostensibly believes.
Thus, the most interesting thing Cohen said Wednesday was (arguably) that there were some things he still can’t discuss — because “there are ongoing investigations currently being conducted that have nothing to do with this committee or Congress that I am assisting in.” Specifically, Cohen refused to answer questions about his contacts with Trump immediately following the FBI’s raid on his properties (conversations that could be relevant to an obstruction of justice prosecution), or about “any other wrongdoing or illegal act” committed by the president, which the House Oversight Committee had yet to explore (a category that could include various white-collar offenses).
Cohen said that Trump had committed other illegal acts that the committee had not considered, but insisted he could not speak of them until his cooperation with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York was complete.
Trump did not explicitly tell Cohen to lie to Congress about the “Moscow project,” but, according to Cohen, he conveyed that instruction nonverbally.
One of the reasons Michael Cohen is headed for prison is that he falsely told Congress that Trump stopped seeking a deal on Trump Tower Moscow — a project that would have required some cooperation from the Russian government — in January 2016. In actual fact, negotiations over the development continued through at least June of that year. Which means that, while Trump was striking a blasphemously dovish stance toward Russia in the GOP primaries, he had a multimillion-dollar incentive to stay in Vladimir Putin’s good graces.
There have been conflicting reports about whether Trump directly instructed Cohen to lie to Congress, an illegal act. Cohen said Wednesday that Trump didn’t directly ask him to perjure himself — but that the president made it quite clear that he expected as much. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates,” Cohen explained. But Trump’s former fixer also noted, “At the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, 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.”
Cohen further alleged that he had submitted his 2017 testimony to Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who reviewed and edited his perjurous remarks before he delivered them (Sekulow denies this).
Cohen says Trump knew about Don Jr.’s decision to accept a meeting with individuals whom he believed to be agents of the Russian government — who were actively backing his father’s campaign — in June 2016.
As Cohen testified:
I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened. Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk — which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: “The meeting is all set.” I remember Mr. Trump saying, “Ok good … let me know.”
What struck me as I looked back and thought about that exchange between Don Jr. and his father was, first, that Mr. Trump had frequently told me and others that his son Don Jr. had the worst judgment of anyone in the world. And also, that Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone — and certainly not without checking with his father.
Cohen kept some (proverbial) receipts.
In statements to prosecutors, Cohen has said that Donald Trump directed him to buy the silence of his (alleged) ex-lovers Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal in 2016 for the specific purpose of protecting his presidential campaign — and that Trump knew such payments were unlawful. Prosecutors’ decision to treat these statements as truthful is the closest they’ve come to formally accusing the president of a crime. Cohen has already been convicted of a campaign-finance violation for his role in the payments. If prosecutors can prove that Trump did in fact order the payments — and that he did so for political reasons, and with full awareness that said payments would constitute illegally large, in-kind contributions to his campaign — than the president would also be guilty of violating federal law.
On Wednesday, Cohen fortified one piece of that potential case against Trump, by presenting reimbursement checks he received for making the Stormy Daniels payment — checks signed by Donald Trump and Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg.
Trump (allegedly) told Cohen that he didn’t want to release his tax returns because he thinks there’s evidence of illegality in them.
“What he didn’t want,” Cohen explained, “was to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces.”