Spectacle or substance? High stakes for Trump ex-lawyer's testimony

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former "fixer" and long-time lawyer, will try to turn the tables on his former boss in congressional testimony on Wednesday that promises to be a media spectacle with potentially high stakes for the Trump presidency.

>>Reuters
Published : 27 Feb 2019, 09:43 AM
Updated : 27 Feb 2019, 09:43 AM

Cohen, who served as Trump's lawyer for a decade, will attempt to portray him as racist and a business cheat while providing evidence of criminal misconduct by Trump after he took office in January 2017, a person familiar with his testimony said.

Cohen also plans to offer "granular detail" about Trump allegedly directing hush-money payments to women in violation of campaign finance law, the person said. Cohen pleaded guilty to his role in arranging the payments, and prosecutors in New York said in a December court filing they believed the president ordered the payments to protect his campaign.

Trump has repeatedly denied ordering the payments.

Cohen, 52, who testified behind closed doors to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and has another non-public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, said he would use Wednesday's hearing to make the case to the public why it should believe him rather than Trump.

The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is scheduled to start just as Trump wraps up a dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, and TV networks may show both simultaneously on a split screen.

The White House again questioned Cohen's credibility on Tuesday, with presidential spokeswoman Sarah Sanders calling him "a convicted liar."

Former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen departs after he testified behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Feb 26, 2019. REUTERS

It is not clear whether the hearing will significantly alter the public's perception of Trump's business practices or put him in greater legal peril.

"It will be a spectacle. No question about that," said Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor. "But after the midday TV drama is over, we'll see if there is anything that amounts to something from a legal perspective."

While Cohen is expected to talk on Wednesday about Trump's interest in a proposed skyscraper project in Moscow long after he secured the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, the bulk of his testimony will be about allegations of wrongdoing by Trump as a businessman and the hush payments, the source said.

According to a staff memo seen by Reuters, Democratic lawmakers will ask Cohen about evidence they believe shows Trump's lawyers misled ethics officials about how Cohen was reimbursed for $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star who said she had sex with Trump in 2006.

CREDIBILITY AT ISSUE

The Republicans on the oversight panel, including ranking member Jim Jordan, are likely to question Cohen's credibility, given his guilty plea for lying to Congress and other crimes.

Former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen departs after testifying behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Feb 26, 2019. REUTERS

Republican US Representative Matt Gaetz, another staunch Trump ally, who is not on the oversight committee, sparked controversy with a tweet on Tuesday suggesting there was compromising information about Cohen's private life.

"I guess tomorrow we will find out if there is anyone who Michael Cohen hasn't lied to," Gaetz said on the House floor amid criticism that his tweet amounted to witness intimidation.

How Cohen handles the Republican assault could determine whether he is perceived as credible and if his congressional testimony ends up having a similar impact to that of John Dean, who helped bring down President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Advocates for Cohen have likened his decision to come clean to federal prosecutors in Manhattan and US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, to that of Dean.

But Dean himself said the significance of Cohen's testimony would depend on what he had to say. He noted that Cohen did not fully cooperate with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which is the reason he is due to start a three-year prison sentence in May despite pleading guilty to financial crimes.

Dean, former White House counsel to Nixon, told Reuters that he expected the Republicans to hammer at why he did not cooperate fully with Manhattan prosecutors.

"It could be historic," Dean, now a frequent commentator on TV, said of Cohen's testimony. "But if he just gets beat up by the Republicans, it won't be."

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher