Michael Cohen returns to Capitol Hill, testifies on Russia, WikiLeaks, money trail in closed-door congressional hearing
By Karoun Demirjian
Feb 28, 2019 | 5:45 PM
President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen will finish his congressional testimony circuit Thursday with a closed-door hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, where he is being grilled for details about the president's plans to build a tower in Moscow, Trump's financial ties to other foreign actors and what he knew about Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cohen, who will soon go to prison for the lies he told lawmakers in 2017 to protect Trump, has been pulling no punches this week as he offers scathing anecdotes, insight and a paper trail that he thinks shows Trump to be a "con man," a "racist" and a "cheat."
But his claims have drawn the ire of Trump allies who have insisted that Cohen is not credible - and are now asking the Justice Department to investigate him for potentially having lied to Congress again, during a public hearing this week.
During testimony Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen told lawmakers that Trump knew in advance that the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks would release emails damaging to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, his Democratic presidential opponent. Cohen also displayed copies of financial statements he said Trump used to inflate his assets and procure a loan from Deutsche Bank. He also produced copies of checks the president and his family wrote to him after Trump took office - checks that Cohen said were reimbursements for $130,000 he paid adult-film actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the election to keep her from discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.
Cohen named Trump Organization CFO Alan Weisselberg as being privy to many of these transactions. On Thursday, a House Intelligence Committee aide said that the panel anticipates bringing in Weisselberg for an interview, but did not name a date for when they planned to make that happen.
Republicans rarely challenged Cohen directly on the substance of his testimony, choosing instead to point out that Cohen had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress once, and could not be trusted.
"Liar, liar, pants on fire," Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona jeered at Cohen at one point. "No one should ever listen to you or give you credibility."
Michael Cohen delivers his opening statement to the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
GOP lawmakers also insisted on several occasions that Cohen was trying to misrepresent his past to lawmakers, such as when he insisted that he had not wanted a job in the Trump administration and had been content, even happy, to serve as Trump's personal lawyer.
That claim contradicts reporting and statements by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who stated in court documents that in private communications, Cohen had told friends that he wanted a Trump administration job - and that when he didn't get one, he "found a way to monetize his relationship with an access to the President."
In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the oversight committee, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., also a panel member, list six complaints about Cohen's testimony that they think might rise to the level of perjury or false statements to Congress. They include allegations that Cohen participated in illegal lobbying and did not disclose contracts linked to foreign governments, as well as accusations that he misrepresented his prowess as a lawyer.
Cohen pushed back on all those charges during Wednesday's hearing, in which he also frequently apologized for "mistakes" he made while working for Trump.
Part of his tour through Capitol Hill is to correct the record of lies he pleaded guilty to telling the Senate and House intelligence committees in 2017, both of which are interviewing him behind closed doors this week.
On Wednesday, Cohen said that some of Trump's lawyers, including Jay Sekulow, had edited his planned comments before his previous testimony - including references to the timeline of Trump's efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Sekulow denied the claim. In general, Cohen said, Trump viewed the 2016 presidential campaign as a potential moneymaking operation because he never thought he would win - right up until he did.
The House Intelligence Committee is expected to investigate that admission further on Thursday. Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has long speculated that Trump and his close affiliates may have laundered money or engaged in financial dealings that could have given foreign actors - not just Russia - leverage over Trump that could affect his actions as president.
"Today Cohen provided the American public with a firsthand account of serious misconduct by Trump & those around him," Schiff tweeted Wednesday evening. "Tomorrow we'll examine in depth many of those topics including Trump Tower Moscow, Roger Stone/WikiLeaks and any WH role in Cohen's false statements to Congress."
Lawmakers on the House intelligence panel said Thursday that they expected the hearing with Cohen to go "deeper" than his public appearance did - and guessed that the interview would continue into the night.
But there were early signs that Cohen's audience behind closed doors would be just as politically divided as it was out in the open. When asked whether Cohen seemed more credible during this appearance, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is on the intelligence panel, said that Cohen appeared "liberated." Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who also is on the committee, said Cohen simply appeared "interesting."