Former Trump attorney begins three days of testimony
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is expected to give a behind-the-scenes account of what he will claim is Trump’s lying, racism and cheating, and possibly even criminal conduct, when he testifies publicly before a House committee Wednesday, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Cohen is expected to provide what he will claim is evidence, in the form of documents, of Trump’s conduct, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss the confidential testimony.
Trump’s former personal “fixer” arrived on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to begin three days of congressional appearances, starting with a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee. The public won’t have a chance to hear from him until Wednesday, when he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He will go behind closed doors again when he talks to the House intelligence committee on Thursday.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement Tuesday it was “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.”
One Republican House member did more than just question Cohen’s credibility. Florida Republican Matt Gaetz tweeted Tuesday that the world is “about to learn a lot” about Cohen and suggested he should talk to his wife before his testimony.
Gaetz, a Trump ally, is not a member of the committee that will question Cohen. He did not offer any evidence. Still, the tweet was extraordinary because his remarks appear to be threatening or intimidating a witness.
“We’re witness testing, not witness tampering,” Gaetz told reporters. “When witnesses come before Congress their truthfulness and veracity are in question and we have the opportunity to test them.”
Lawmakers are alternately suspicious of Cohen — who is set to serve prison time for lying to the House and Senate intelligence committees in 2017 — and eager to hear what he has to say after he turned on his longtime boss. Senators on the intelligence panel attended Tuesday’s private meeting, a departure from the committee’s usual practice, where witness interviews are conducted by staff only.
Sen. Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, suggested Cohen had provided important information.
“Two years ago when this investigation started I said it may be the most important thing I am involved in in my public life in the Senate, and nothing I’ve heard today dissuades me from that view,” Warner said after returning to the interview from a Senate vote.
The Senate intelligence committee chairman, Richard Burr, told The Associated Press that senators would have staff ask questions but would be in the room to observe. He said no topics would be off limits and Cohen, a close confidant of Trump for many years, “should expect to get any question from anywhere about anything.”
Burr said committee members know a lot more than they did when they first interviewed Cohen, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the committees about abandoning a proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow in January 2016. Cohen has since acknowledged he continued pursuing the project for months after that.
Burr suggested his committee would take steps to ensure Cohen was telling the truth.
“I’m sure there will be some questions we know the answers to, so we’ll test him to see whether in fact he’ll be truthful this time,” Burr said.
Cohen’s testimony is among the most anticipated since the House and Senate started investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties two years ago. In addition to lying to Congress, Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations for his involvement in payments to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump.
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.
Trump denies the allegations and says that Cohen lied to get a lighter sentence.
Cohen, who is set to begin a three-year prison sentence in May, was officially disbarred Tuesday. By pleading guilty, a New York court ruled, Cohen automatically lost his eligibility to practice law.
The person with knowledge of what Cohen intends to tell Congress said he will provide information about Trump’s financial statements that he will claim shows Trump deflated assets to pay lower taxes on golf courses; will provide details of the Daniels payment and claim that Trump organized a cover-up by pretending Cohen would be repaid; and claim that Trump talked to him and asked him questions about the Trump Moscow project throughout 2016.
He is also expected to discuss what he knows about a meeting between Trump campaign associates and a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower before the 2016 election, a matter that is of particular interest to special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators.
Cohen is only expected to discuss matters related to Russia in the closed-door interviews with the intelligence committees, as House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings has said he doesn’t want to interfere with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and links to Trump’s campaign.
Members of the Oversight panel are expected to ask questions about the campaign finance violations, Trump’s business practices and compliance with tax laws and “the accuracy of the president’s public statements,” according to a memo laying out the scope of that hearing. The hearing’s scope does not include Russia.
Cohen’s week of interviews comes as House Democrats open multiple investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia and conflict-of-interest issues within the administration. House Republicans in the last Congress investigated whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia, but ended that probe over Democratic objections, saying there was no evidence it did so. The Senate’s Russia investigation is ongoing.
Cohen had been scheduled to speak to the three committees earlier this month, but rescheduled all of those appearances for different reasons. He said he needed to recover from surgery and also was concerned about what he considered to be threats to his family from Trump and the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
The House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, postponed Cohen’s appearance before that committee, saying it was “in the interests of the investigation,” with no additional details.