After Michael Cohen’s testimony about President Trump, one question remains: Who to believe?
Michael Cohen said he followed Donald Trump “blindly” for years and warned others who do will “suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
WASHINGTON – Long before Michael Cohen came to Congress to cast President Donald Trump as a “conman” and possibly a criminal, the president’s longtime personal attorney had given doubters plenty to chew on.
Cohen arrived at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s much-anticipated hearing on Wednesday just two months removed from pleading guilty to lying to Congress about his own dealings with Trump. And a little more than two months from now, Cohen must begin a three-year prison sentence that has raised as many questions about his own credibility as that of his former boss, who Cohen derided as a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”
Cohen, who once boasted that he would take a bullet for the president, claimed that Trump implicitly encouraged him to lie to Congress in 2017 about the pursuit of a Moscow tower project; ordered hush money payments to women in violation of campaign finance laws; and knew in advance that WikiLeaks would release stolen emails from Hillary Clinton. Over six hours of sworn testimony, Cohen linked Trump more directly than ever to the criminal investigations that have loomed over his presidency.
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And he offered congressional lawmakers a road map to witnesses and documents he said could corroborate his claims for congressional investigators probing the president and his businesses.
Still, while Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., billed the extraordinary hearing as a “search for the truth,” the spectacle ended more than six hours later with the same basic question as when it began: Who to believe?
“Some will certainly ask, ‘If Mr. Cohen was lying then (when he defended Trump for more than a decade as his trusted attorney), why should we should we believe him now?” Cummings asked.”That is a legitimate question.”
The question posed by the chairman would later track an oft-repeated refrain by Republican committee members whose attacks on Cohen’s veracity shadowed the attorney’s stunning accounts of his boss’ conduct.
“Anything that Michael Cohen asserts comes combined with credibility issues. That’s just par for the course,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. “But, it’s not a high bar to be more truthful than Trump on these issues.”
Indeed, Trump has offered a series of conflicting statements about hush-money deals to quiet women who alleged affairs, first claiming he knew nothing of the payments then admitting they “came from me.” It all came to a head on Wednesday when Cohen offered Congress copies of checks with Trump’s distinctive signature that Cohen said were made to repay him for the hush money deals.
Lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, agreed that Cohen had lied in the past but they disagreed whether his word should be trusted now. Cummings, after the hearing, said he found Cohen believable and thought the hearing shed new light on whether the president may have committed a crime.
Yet, throughout the daylong spectacle, Republicans cast Cohen as a liar– someone who sought to gain financially from book and TV deals by bashing the president.
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar put it plainly: “Look at the old adage that our moms taught us: Liar, liar, pants on fire. No one should ever listen to you and give you credibility. It’s sad.”
Trump’s campaign even chimed in, calling him a felon, liar and questioning the evidence Cohen provided to Congress. “Michael Cohen is a felon, a disbarred lawyer, and a convicted perjurer, who lied to both Congress and the special counsel in a deliberate and premeditated fashion…,” campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said. “This is the same Michael Cohen who has admitted that he lied to Congress previously. Why did they even bother to swear him in this time?”
As President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Republicans have spent much of their time calling him a liar, including a large poster that read: “Liar, liar pants on fire.” (Feb. 27)
Throughout the hours of testimony, Republicans repeatedly asserted that Cohen had admitted to lying to Congress and was merely testifying in hopes for a lighter prison sentence.
Mariotti said Cohen’s testimony wouldn’t change the three-year sentence handed down by a judge, adding that his comments were just of accounts that he has already provided to prosecutors.
But there were very real risks. Among those certain to have monitored Cohen’s testimony were federal prosecutors in Manhattan and those assigned to Russia special counsel Robert Mueller. Both teams have obtained testimony from Cohen in ongoing investigations and will likely ensure that Cohen’s testimony before Congress tracks the information he has provided them.
Any slip could cost him a chance at reduced prison time or new criminal charges for lying to Congress.
“Of course, Cohen appearing before Congress wasn’t an act of charity. He wants to improve his public reputation, which has been decimated,” Mariotti said. “And to a large part, I think this has helped.”
Federal prosecutors have already backed parts of Cohen’s account. Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing in December that Cohen made hush-money payments to two women at Trump’s direction. And Cohen confirmed on Wednesday that he was continuing to cooperate with federal investigators who seized troves of records from his home and office, and customarily seek out evidence far broader than the word of someone trying to earn himself a shorter prison sentence.
Elizabeth de la Vega, a federal prosecutor of 20 years, said she found Cohen believable, adding that conservatives on the committee didn’t seem to even dispute the nature of Cohen’s allegations, only attacking his character.
“The one glaring thing they did not do was talk about any of the facts,” de la Vega said. “They just hammered on what we know: Michael Cohen has lied and done bad things.”
Helping his case, Cohen sought to prove some of his claims with documents he’d kept during his decade working under Trump as his right-hand man.
He brought along copies of checks, one signed by Trump while he was president, that Cohen said was repayment for a hush money deal with porn star Stormy Daniels after she alleged an affair with the president.
Cohen also included a letter he sent, which he claimed Trump directed him to write, where he threatened the president’s alma mater with a lawsuit if his grades were released. He also provided copies of documents detailing Trump’s finances for several years, alleging that Trump inflated his assets to get better insurance rates and loans from banks. The documents offered support for some of Cohen’s claims – particularly that Trump had personally reimbursed him for the 2016 payoffs – but did little to corroborate others.
Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, had previously released a secretly recorded audio recording of Trump that showed that the president was aware and approved of the scheme to quiet claims by women who alleged affairs.
“You have to look at the big picture,” de la Vega pointed out.
She said the test of truth shouldn’t just focus on Wednesday and Cohen’s testimony. It’s about the whole of what is known and the information still being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York and by Mueller.
“This test of credibility is about everyone and everything we know thus far,” de la Vega said. “You have all these other factors and evidence that’s been part of a number of cases.”
Even if lawmakers do not believe Cohen, he left them with names of other witnesses and a trail to follow in investigating Trump’s businesses, his presidential campaign and whether there is any truth to his former lawyer’s searing accusations.
“The question becomes, where do we go from here?” Cummings said after Wednesday’s hearing. He said between Cohen’s testimony and evidence, lawmakers have a lot to study.
“If you asked me exactly where we’re going, I can’t tell you exactly the areas we’ll go in, but we will do things in a very methodical way, a very careful way,” he said. “I thought (Cohen) brought a lot to the table, he described the Donald Trump that he knows. And we’ll see where we go from there.”
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