The Five Biggest Takeaways from Michael Cohen’s Testimony

What Cohen had to say about the president—and what our system of democracy should do about it all.
by Kim Wehle
February 27, 2019
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Republicans on the House Oversight Committee spent the bulk of their floor time Wednesday attempting to impugn the credibility of former Trump lawyer Michael D. Cohen, who reports to federal prison in May for multiple felonies, including lying to Congress. That part is old news.

The Republicans’ hostile questioning is nonetheless relevant, as it gets to whether Cohen’s substantive testimony regarding matters relating to Donald J. Trump was true. Cohen testified that he previously lied to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal in order to protect Trump.

So when did Cohen actually lie to Congress—then or now?

Let’s break this down logically. If Cohen lied during his earlier testimony, it’s reasonable to believe that he told the truth today in saying that he is no longer protecting Trump. If he lied today, then it’s reasonable to believe that his guilty plea for lying was itself a lie. If this tongue twister puzzles the brain, it should.

What matters are the things Cohen had to say about the president of the United States—and what our system of democracy should do about them. On that front, the new news from Cohen’s testimony (in addition to what was in his prepared statement) includes the following:

1) Cohen testified that, in connection with a possible purchase of the Buffalo Bills football team, Trump knowingly provided false information to Deutsche Bank regarding his assets. He also said that Trump provided false information to insurance companies and devalued assets for purposes of his tax liability. If Cohen is accurate, it could amount to federal felonies for bank, insurance, and tax fraud.

2) Cohen testified that he last spoke with the White House in the weeks following the FBI’s raid of his hotel room and office in April 2018, but declined to provide specifics of those communications on the request of the Southern District of New York, which he indicated is investigating the matter. Cohen also said that he is aware of other wrongdoing by Trump that is under investigation by the SDNY.

3) Cohen testified that Trump’s lawyers reviewed and made edits to Cohen’s prior prepared testimony to Congress. That’s the testimony that gave rise to his guilty plea for lying to Congress about the timing of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. Cohen said, in addition, that the changes made by Trump’s lawyers related to the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations stayed alive—precisely the issue that Cohen lied to Congress about.

4) Cohen testified that in or about May 2017, he met with Trump in the White House. At that meeting, Trump allegedly made clear to Cohen what he wanted Cohen to say to Congress—i.e., “no Russia,” “no collusion,” “no involvement,” “no interference,” “it’s all a witch hunt,” and “this has to end.” Cohen also said that Trump asked him to tell the press and the public that Trump was “not knowledgeable” about the payments made to Stormy Daniels to silence her regarding their sexual affair in the run-up to the 2016 election.

5) Cohen provided granular details about how he hid the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels—including lying to Melania Trump—and made very clear that Trump had knowledge of and even directed the crime. Cohen entered into the congressional record a cancelled $35,000 check bearing Donald Trump’s signature, which Cohen said was reimbursement for the payment he made to Daniels. According to prosecutors from the SDNY, Cohen’s payment—made on behalf of “Individual 1” (aka Trump)—amounted to a crime under the federal campaign finance laws.

Cohen also said some things in Trump’s favor. He testified that Trump “would never” strike his wife Melania, despite rumors to the contrary; that to his knowledge, Trump did not father a “love child,” despite AMI’s David Pecker “catch and kill” payment of $15,000 to an accuser on Trump’s behalf; that he has never been to Prague, undermining one of the most notable stories in the infamous Christopher Steele dossier; and that Trump was mainly interested in building his brand and never expected to win the presidency—a narrative that weakens the perception that Trump and Putin cooked up and executed an epic fraud on the American public in exchange for pro-Russia policies once in office.

What Cohen’s testimony means is ultimately for the American public to determine—because politics will decide the president’s fate, not the criminal justice system.

But one line is hard to shake: Michael Cohen testified that people in the Trump Organization lie for Donald Trump “every day,” and that it’s happening in government too. “I was you,” he told Trump loyalists.

He then expressed regret that he played a role in the destruction of civility in American life.

Kim Wehle

Kim Wehle is a contributor to the Bulwark, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, a former assistant U.S. attorney, a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, a CBS News legal analyst, and a contributor to the BBC. Her book, How to Read the Constitution and—Why, will be published in June. Follow her on Twitter @kim_wehle.