Cohen accuses the US president of lies and cover-ups

President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer accused him on Wednesday of an expansive pattern of lies and criminality, offering a damning portrayal of life inside the president’s orbit where he said advisers sacrificed integrity for proximity to power.

>> Peter Baker and Nicholas FandosThe New York Times
Published : 28 Feb 2019, 09:14 AM
Updated : 28 Feb 2019, 09:14 AM

Michael D Cohen, who represented Trump for a decade, laid out for Congress for the first time a series of deceptions by the president. He charged that Trump lied to the public about business interests in Russia, lied to reporters about stolen Democratic emails and told Cohen to lie about hush payments to cover up sexual misconduct.

The accusations, aired at a daylong hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, exposed a dark underside of Trump’s business and political worlds in the voice of one of the ultimate insiders. Perhaps no close associate has turned on a president in front of Congress in such dramatic fashion and with such high stakes since John Dean testified against President Richard M Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

“He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat,” Cohen said of the president. Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to lying under oath to Congress, among other crimes, said he did so to protect Trump. “I am not protecting Mr Trump anymore,” he said.

While the details have been different, his portrait of the president broadly resembles those provided by others who have split with Trump, including former aides, business associates and even his onetime ghostwriter, who likewise have described a president who bullies, dissembles and cheats to serve his own interests.

But it remained unclear whether Cohen’s testimony would change the political dynamics of a series of scandals that have already polarised Washington and the country and that could lead to an impeachment battle later this year. Rep Elijah E Cummings, D-Md. and the committee chairman, said afterward that Trump may have committed a crime while in office, but Republicans were unmoved.

Assailing Cohen as a proven liar, they denounced the hearing as a “charade” and an “embarrassment for our country” orchestrated by partisan Democrats seeking a pretext to try to remove Trump from office. Democrats said Republicans “ran away from the truth” as they sought to defend a corrupt president who has employed “textbook mob tactics.”

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb 27, 2019. Cohen accused Trump of an expansive pattern of lies and criminality, offering a damning portrayal of life inside the president’s orbit. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

The hearing took place while the president was halfway around the world in Vietnam for a meeting with North Korea’s leader. His family and advisers expressed anger at the timing, arguing that Democrats were undercutting Trump during sensitive nuclear diplomacy for political gain.

As with so many other moments of the Trump era, the hearing seemed to be as much about partisan theater as fact-finding. Democrats and Republicans set forth their conflicting narratives about the man who once served Trump, either as a duplicitous disgruntled former employee or a fallen sinner trying to redeem himself by coming clean.

Through it all sat Cohen, 52, with dark circles under his puffy eyes, already tired from eight hours of testimony behind closed doors the day before and awaiting a three-year prison term that begins this spring. Apologising repeatedly to his family, Cohen portrayed himself as a broken man brought down by hubris, at one point choking up and wiping tears from his eyes at the mention of the effect on his daughter.

Through some five hours of nationally televised testimony, Cohen described his years working for Trump as a trip into a world of deceit in which the now-disbarred lawyer ignored his own conscience to get close to a magnetic person of power.

“Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerised by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong,” Cohen said. When he met Trump, he knew him as “a real estate giant” and “an icon” at the centre of the action. “Being around Mr Trump was intoxicating,” he said.

In private business, Cohen said he rationalised Trump’s dishonesty as “trivial” but as president, he said, “I consider it significant and dangerous.”

The president’s re-election campaign organisation on Wednesday dismissed Cohen as a convicted perjurer who should not be trusted. “This is the same Michael Cohen who has admitted that he lied to Congress previously,” Kayleigh McEnany, the campaign’s national press secretary, said in a statement. “Why did they even bother to swear him in this time?”

Republicans on the committee aggressively challenged Cohen along the same lines. Rep Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican, called Cohen a “fraudster, cheat, convicted felon and, in two months, a federal inmate.”

Jordan questioned Cohen’s motives in assailing Trump’s character and actions, suggesting that the former lawyer was embittered because the new president did not bring him to Washington.

“You wanted to work in the White House — " Jordan said.

“No, sir,” Cohen replied.

“ — and you didn’t get brought to the dance.”

“I did not want to go to the White House,” Cohen asserted.

Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, took issue with that on Twitter. “Michael was lobbying EVERYONE to be ‘Chief of Staff,'” he wrote. “It was the biggest joke in the campaign and around the office. Did he just perjure himself again?”

The hearing drew enormous interest on Capitol Hill, where Democrats last month took control of the House and are under pressure from their liberal base to take on Trump. The crowds were huge and the sense of drama palpable. Lawmakers of both parties listened raptly to Cohen’s 30-minute opening statement.

Cohen laid out a series of actions by Trump that bolster previous accusations and news stories, presenting documents to corroborate his account, including copies of checks issued by the president or his trust that he said were reimbursements for $130,000 in hush payments Cohen made to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress who alleged an affair with Trump.

Cohen said that Trump, as a candidate, initiated the hush payment plan and, while president, arranged for 11 checks reimbursing the lawyer “as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws,” a crime to which Cohen has pleaded guilty.

After news reports about the payments in February 2018, Cohen told lawmakers, the president called and told him to say that Trump “was not knowledgeable of these reimbursements and he wasn’t knowledgeable of” Cohen’s actions. Trump himself later told reporters he did not know about it.

Trump’s signature on a $35,000 check to Cohen, however, appeared to contradict that. Asked later by reporters if that meant Trump committed a crime while in office, Cummings said, “Based on looking at the checks and listening to Mr Cohen, it appears that he did.”

Trump likewise did not report the debt to Cohen on his annual financial disclosure statement in 2017, but did report paying it off on his 2018 form.

Cohen told lawmakers Trump personally monitored negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, asking about it “at least a half-dozen times” between January and June 2016 even while running for president.

“Mr Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it,” Cohen said. “He lied about it because he never expected to win. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”

In previous testimony before his prosecution, Cohen lied to Congress by saying negotiations ended in January 2016. Trump did not explicitly instruct him to lie to Congress, Cohen said, but through his actions he “made clear to me” that “he wanted me to lie” and the president’s lawyers reviewed and even edited Cohen’s false statement to Congress.

Cohen said he had no “direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.” But, he added, “I have my suspicions.”

He pointed to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Donald Trump Jr, the candidate’s eldest son; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman; met with visiting Russians after being told that they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

The president has denied knowing about the meeting, but Cohen cast doubt on that, saying he was in Trump’s office one day in June 2016 when Donald Jr came in, went behind his father’s desk and, speaking in a low voice, said, “The meeting is all set.” The candidate, he said, replied, “OK, good. Let me know.”

Cohen said that might have referred to the Russia meeting because “Mr Trump had frequently told me and others that his son Don Jr had the worst judgment of anyone in the world” and that his son “would never set up any meeting of significance alone and certainly not without checking with his father.”

Cohen also recalled being in Trump’s office shortly before the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when Roger J Stone Jr, a longtime adviser, called. Trump put him on speakerphone and Stone reported that he had just spoken with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who said “that within a couple of days there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

In an interview with The New York Times last month, Trump denied speaking with Stone about WikiLeaks and the emails. Assange’s lawyer issued a statement on Wednesday disputing Cohen’s account.

The hearing left some questions unanswered and Democrats pledged to press for more details about the Russia investigation when he appears for a private interview on Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee.

Cohen offered some tantalising hints of more to come. Asked about his last conversation with Trump, he said he could not answer because it is “being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in New York. Asked if he knew of other wrongdoing or crimes by Trump, he said, “Yes. And again, those are part of the investigation.”

More generally, Cohen compared Trump to a mobster who inflated his net worth to the public while understating it to tax authorities, rigged an art auction using his charitable foundation and threatened those who got in his way. Cohen estimated Trump had asked him to threaten someone perhaps 500 times over 10 years, from berating a “nasty reporter” to warning of lawsuits. He provided letters he wrote during the campaign at Trump’s direction to the president’s high school, colleges and the College Board threatening civil and criminal action if they released his grades or SAT scores.

Cohen said Trump did not run for president to make the country great, instead calling his campaign the “greatest infomercial in political history” for his business. “He never expected to win the primary,” he said. “He never expected to win the general election. The campaign, for him, was always a marketing opportunity.” But now, he said, he fears that if Trump loses re-election next year, “there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”

The former lawyer also described racist comments. Trump asked if he could “name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a shithole” and, while driving through a struggling neighbourhood, remarked that only African-Americans could live that way. “He told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid,” Cohen said.

Except for one Trump sceptic, Republicans did not ask about the president’s conduct or, for that matter, offer any sustained defence of Trump. Instead, they pressed their argument that Cohen was not to be believed. They argued that he lied even in signing a committee form that did not disclose work for a bank in Kazakhstan.

“You’re a pathological liar,” charged Rep Paul Gosar of Arizona.

“Are you referring to me or the president?” Cohen retorted.

Cohen suggested that Republicans were falling into the trap that he did, trading their honour for a president who did not deserve it.

“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he said. “I protected Mr Trump for 10 years.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher