Michael Cohen’s Testimony Portrays President Trump as a Serial Grifter
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, self-described “fixer” and convicted fraudster, testifies Wednesday morning before Congress, flotillas of cameras and legions of television viewers in what is likely to be the first installment of a reality TV series the president has spent his entire life avoiding.
On Tuesday night, Bloomberg News published a copy of Cohen’s prepared remarks ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. According to that document, Cohen plans to describe Trump as a “racist,“ a “conman,” and a “cheat” – and someone who knowingly collaborated with Roger Stone, Julian Assange and Wikileaks to secure and distribute emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also will provide legislators with a copy of a $35,000 check that Trump “personally signed from his personal bank account” in 2017 “when he was President of the United States” to partially reimburse him for $130,000 in illegal hush money he paid a porn star who allegedly had a sexual encounter with Trump.
Cohen’s testimony also will recount Trump maneuvering to keep his academic records private, masking how he got his draft deferments during the Vietnam war, lying about his wealth and, perhaps most glaringly, scrambling to dissemble about his effort to make “hundreds of millions of dollars” on a project in Russia. Although Cohen lied to Congress about the particulars of that project – telling lawmakers that negotiations had stopped in January 2016, when in fact, they “continued for months later during the campaign” – he says in his prepared remarks that Trump didn’t direct him to lie (contradicting a controversial BuzzFeed article that recently said quite the opposite).
Cohen, however, also plans to say that Trump had no problem lying to the public about his business dealings in Russia. “In conversations we had during the campaign, 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 will recall. “Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
And this: “The sad fact is that I never heard Mr. Trump say anything in private that led me to believe he loved our nation or wanted to make it better. In fact, he did the opposite.”
For all of that, though, Cohen is a troubled, unreliable narrator. A street fighter who once said he “would take a bullet for the president,” he was nonetheless gradually shunned by the Trump family before he became ensnared in a federal investigation that ultimately found him guilty of lying to Congress about the president’s business forays in Russia, as well as bank fraud, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations. He’s set to serve three years in prison for those crimes and was recently disbarred.
With the strong arm of the law on his shoulder and prison on the horizon late last year, Cohen began cooperating with authorities because, he said, he wanted to protect his family and put “country first.” Yeah, but no. Prosecutors at the U.S Attorney’s office in Manhattan said in December that they didn’t think Cohen's cooperation emerged from “personal resolve.” Rather, they said, Cohen cooperated to save his skin and avoid a harsher prison sentence.
Yet despite Cohen’s comic inadequacies and his operatic taste for financial and political corruption, his congressional testimony is the centerpiece of what may be the broader public’s first vivid exposure to the financial and ethical conflicts, as well as illegalities, that have swirled around Trump and his entourage for a long time. Until now, observers of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Team Trump’s intersection with Russian interests, and the U.S. Attorney’s probe of Cohen and others, have had to rely on news accounts, court documents, and periodic interviews to make sense of things. Television – featuring a real Trump insider interrogated under oath – potentially brings the presidential probes into viewers’ homes in a very human, apprehensible way.
The Cohen hearing also marks the moment when the center of gravity of the various Trump investigations moves away from law enforcement and into the halls of Congress, sped along by television’s reach. Spectacle is spectacle, and the president, a creature of television and digital ubiquity, surely understands the potential long-term political and legal damage the Cohen show and the others that are sure to follow might inflict. Although Trump is trapped at a diplomatic summit in Vietnam while Cohen trolls him back home in epic, Trumpian strokes, the president has already hit back on Twitter and has allies leaping into the fray.
“It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Tuesday morning. On Tuesday evening, Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, attacked Cohen on Twitter, asking him if his “wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” and wondering if Cohen’s wife will “remain faithful when you’re in prison.” Gaetz deleted the tweet after coming under fire for possibly engaging in witness tampering, but it was reminiscent of a threat Trump himself had made to Cohen in January during an appearance on Fox News.
If the White House and the president’s compatriots in the GOP had nothing to fear from Cohen’s testimony, they wouldn’t be going out of their way to try to impugn him before the fireworks even begin. That they are is surely because they – and the president – recognize the twin perils that Cohen embodies, especially when his testimony will portray the president as the architect of most of the wrongdoing.
The first of these threats get to core issues that have informed federal prosecutors’ investigations of Trump and his world almost from their respective launches. Was Trump’s potentially lucrative Moscow project a payoff of sorts for any potential collaboration before, during or after the 2016 election – and in exchange for possible promises to the Kremlin, like lifting U.S. economic sanctions on Russia or changing the country’s policy in Ukraine? At a minimum, the very possibility of this scenario casts a shadow over Trump’s stewardship of the U.S.’s national security.
Cohen also has something to say about Trump’s potential participation in a crime that may have taken place in the Oval Office: paying off an alleged paramour to lie about an affair. This one needn’t rely solely on Cohen’s verbal testimony at all – because there are tapes of the president and Cohen discussing some of this, as well as lengthy court filings. It’s also certain that the prosecutors examining Cohen’s role in these events haven’t relied solely on his testimony. There will be other witnesses and more documentation, and possibly a lot of both.
The second set of threats that will emerge from Cohen’s testimony will be directed at the Trump Organization itself and will certainly, unlike the Mueller probe, be centered on New York, where the relevant federal law enforcement offices are based. Any reporter who has covered Trump knows that his obsession with wealth and his elastic definition of his net worth is ever-present. The portions of Cohen’s testimony about Trump and his money ring true. (Trump sued me in 2006 when I was a reporter with the New York Times, claiming that a biography I wrote with his extensive cooperation, “TrumpNation,” misrepresented his wealth and track record as a businessman; he lost the suit in 2011.)
While the media has occasionally portrayed Cohen as someone with deep insight into the Trump Organization’s finances, he has only been with the company since 2006 and was largely kept at bay. The Trump family’s longtime accountant and current chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, has decades more experience with Trump than Cohen and truly knows where many of the financial bodies are buried. Weisselberg is mentioned on at least one of the Trump-Cohen tapes and has been cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Cohen’s testimony before Congress will outline Weisselberg’s efforts to draft misleading financial statements for the president which “inflated or deflated his net worth for business and personal purposes, including avoiding paying property taxes.” Cohen’s prepared statement indicates that some of those bogus financial statements may have been given to Deutsche Bank AG, a troubled German lender that has been the president’s primary bank for business for years. The Journal also noted that Weisselberg directed that hush money payments given to Cohen be accounted for as “legal fees” on the Trump Organization’s books, even though no such services were provided.
Weisselberg currently runs the Trump Organization with Trump’s two eldest sons, and over the years he has looked after the president’s personal tax returns and helped to oversee the company’s key deals. If Cohen’s testimony makes the CFO an even greater person of interest to congressional investigators or prosecutors, then it will put the probes more firmly on a path Trump has repeatedly warned authorities to avoid: the money trail.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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