Very likely, nothing that unfolded in room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday would have happened if President Donald Trump had just paid Michael Cohen’s legal bills.
Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and recently convicted felon, told a rapt House Oversight Committee that the president of the United States operates like a gangster. In Cohen’s recollection from his decade-plus in Trump’s inner circle, the president lies effortlessly and expects others to lie to protect him, particularly about a lucrative business deal in Russia he had Cohen pursue during the campaign “because he never expected to win the election.”
Trump, Cohen said, uses the plausible-deniability approach of a mafia boss: he doesn’t explicitly instruct subordinates to lie–“that’s not how he operates,” in Cohen’s phrase–so he can deny involvement when the subordinate follows the clearly implied instruction. For hours on Wednesday, Trump’s numerous Republican allies on the committee attempted to use that loophole to insinuate that Cohen simply lied on his own behalf, rather than Trump’s.
“I know what he wants, because I’ve been around him for so long,” Cohen at one point rejoindered. Called a “pathological liar” by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Cohen asked, “Are you talking about me or the president?”
But lie Cohen did in his 2017 congressional appearances. He admitted on Wednesday that he lied to Congress about the timeline of the Trump Tower Moscow discussions and Trump’s knowledge of a business arrangement that gave the Kremlin a personal chit to dangle in front of the future president of the United States. Cohen received a three-year prison sentence for that and unrelated financial crimes.
In his post-conviction testimony, Cohen put Trump ever closer to obstructing congressional investigations, saying Trump’s “personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.”
If all of this sounds like the work of a capo on behalf of his don, Cohen meant it that way. The man who once said he would do something “fucking disgusting” to a Daily Beast reporter confessed he found being beside the “icon” Trump to be “intoxicating.” The desire to share in the ostentatious, consequence-free life of wealth and decadence–something Cohen said felt world-changing–“monopolized my life.” And nothing in Trumpworld, he told Congress, moved without the boss’ “knowledge and approval,” in part because he distrusted his lieutenants, including eldest son Don Jr.
But, Cohen said in an admission that served as a warning to the GOP that Trump has dominated, the loyalty only runs one way.
“He is capable of being loyal,” Cohen said, “but he is fundamentally disloyal… He had no desire or intention to lead this nation–only to market himself and to build his wealth and power.”
Cohen lived it. When his work for Trump landed him in substantial legal jeopardy, Trump made the fateful decision not to fund Cohen’s defense. After all those years of service that bordered on abject, Trump didn’t fulfill the one obligation the don owes the capo. Cohen was just another contractor Trump could stiff.
If the president had paid Cohen’s legal bills, Cohen likely still would spend years in prison. But he wouldn’t be on Capitol Hill telling the president’s Democratic enemies that Trump is a liar, a conman, and a racist willing to sell America to Vladimir Putin if he could slap his name on a Moscow skyscraper. More likely, Cohen would go to prison in the style of ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, lying baldly on his way to a cell.
Instead, Cohen highlighted how Trump’s gangsterism works. During an impassioned moment at the end of a long day of testimony, Cohen warned that if Trump loses the 2020 election, “there will never be a peaceful transfer of power.” And other things Cohen said had particular salience for the central investigation of the president: potential conspiracy with Russia.
Cohen contradicted another Trump consigliere in substantial legal trouble.
Roger Stone has long tried to retract his initial August 2016 claim of contact with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who on July 22, 2016 published thousands of Democratic National Committee emails that Russian military intelligence stole and provided him. Cohen said that around July 18 or 19, 2016, he was in Trump’s office when Stone called to say he had “just gotten off the phone” with Assange, who informed him of a forthcoming “massive dump of emails” that would damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Trump, Cohen said, expressed enthusiasm, but he did not believe Trump knew the “substance” of the email dump. (Stone told The Daily Beast “Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true.”)
Cohen’s account corroborated Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who said in charging documents that Stone had contacted “senior Trump campaign officials” before the WikiLeaks publication to inform the campaign that the damaging material on Clinton would soon come to light. Afterward, according to Mueller, a senior campaign official “was directed to contact Stone” about what other dirt WikiLeaks had on Clinton. Then Stone instructed his associate, conspiracy theorist Roger Corsi, to contact WikiLeaks about “potential future releases of damaging material” that Stone would then brief the campaign about, Mueller alleges.
Cohen’s testimony is the first public allegation from Trump’s inner circle that he had direct knowledge of communications with WikiLeaks. It is also the first such claim that Trump—not just members of his campaign, as Mueller asserts—had foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ campaign to assail Clinton by dumping hacked emails.
In addition, Cohen put Trump closer to obstructing congressional inquiries about Russia contacts. He said that in May 2017, ahead of his misleading October congressional testimony, he met with Trump and the president’s attorney Jay Sekulow. Trump, Cohen testified, mused that “there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no interference,” which Cohen understood to be a tacit instruction to lie to Congress.
Sekulow, he said, made “changes” to the timeline Cohen offered to Congress that year about Cohen’s pursuit of Trump Tower Moscow. Cohen initially told Congress the pursuit ended in January 2016, before the Iowa caucuses, but he now admits it lasted until “the end of June” 2016, weeks before Trump’s nominating convention. (Trump’s current attorney, Rudy Giuliani, recently said that the project could have been pursued “up to November 2016.”)
If Trump was the boss, Cohen was an eagerly thuggish consigliere. Under questioning from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Cohen estimated that he had “probably” issued legal threats over “500 times” to various people and entities, like journalists, on Trump’s behalf.
Trump also moved money around like a criminal, Cohen testified.
In response to questions from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Cohen said that Trump was aware of a scheme at the Trump Organization to repay Cohen for payments to Stormy Daniels–something Cohen said he couldn’t comment on further because it was “possibly” under investigation by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
Soon after, Cohen told Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) he did not know whether Trump’s long-standing excuse for obscuring his tax returns (that he was under audit) was true, saying Trump told him that he didn’t want “an entire group of think tanks… ripping it to pieces and then he’ll end up in an audit. … I presume he wasn’t under audit.”
Despite Trump and the GOP’s accusation that Cohen was simply out to slime Trump–variously to earn post-prison money or fame, or to settle scores over being passed over for a White House job Cohen says he never sought–Cohen didn’t blindly corroborate any accusation out there against Trump.
He said Trump “would never, ever” hit his wife, shooting down a lurid story about a tape from an elevator showing such violence. Cohen continued to insist that he had never been to Prague, nor met with Russians in Europe in 2016, contradicting claims from ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier. More curiously, Cohen said Trump only stopped pursuing the Trump Tower Moscow deal “because he won the presidency,” but kept his timetable for the deal’s termination at June 2016 instead of November.
And while Cohen at some length described Trump as a charlatan, an “autocrat,” and a racist, he maintained a mournful tone. At no time during Wednesday’s hearing did he sound gleeful, vengeful, or even unburdened.
“I take no pleasure,” he said, “in saying anything negative about Mr. Trump.” At a different moment, Cohen said Trump “can and is doing things that are great.”
Even without the patronage of the don, some aspects of the capo’s loyalty evidently die hard.