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26 February 2019

5 questions to watch out for in Michael Cohen’s bombshell testimony to Congress

The president’s former fixer is reportedly planning to expose Trump’s “lies, racism and cheating” before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. Here’s what to watch out for. 

By Sophie McBain

On 27 February, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen will testify in front of the House Oversight Committee. He is already on the Hill, speaking to lawmakers at the Senate and House Intelligence Committees too, starting with the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. But only Wednesday’s testimony will be broadcast publicly, and it is likely to be explosive. Cohen is angry and resentful of his former boss, and he has little left to lose. In around two months, he’s scheduled to report to prison to serve a three-year sentence for financial crimes, lying to Congress and breaking campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women who say they had affairs with Trump.

Tantalisingly, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis told the New York Times that Cohen has “worked very hard on this moment to not only tell the truth, but to back it up with documents.” The newspaper says some documents will presented in a way that will allow members of the public to read them too. The Trump administration has been at pains to discredit Cohen – White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently described him as a “convicted liar” – but we may not have to rely on Cohen’s word alone.

Cohen’s testimony is all the more significant because we still have no idea how much of the Mueller report into election interference will eventually be made public. The Washington Post reports that the committee lawmakers will not publicly grill Cohen directly on Russian election interference or possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Nevertheless, for ordinary Americans Wednesday’s hearings could offer a rare glimpse into the murkiness and intrigue that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have spent so many months trying to make sense of. And, with Cohen reportedly planning to expose the president’s “lies, racism and cheating” we can expect plenty of sordid, unflattering and potentially incriminating details on Trump.

So bring popcorn, and watch out for possible answers to these questions:

1. How accurate was Buzzfeed’s report alleging that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about his Moscow Tower project?

In January, Buzzfeed reported that Cohen told Mueller’s investigators that the president directed him to lie to Congress about the duration of a project to build a Trump tower in Moscow. Buzzfeed’s report also said that Mueller had a cache of documents confirming Cohen’s account. Mueller’s team issued a rare public statement refuting Buzzfeed’s story, but the website has stuck by its reporting and pointed out that the special counsel’s statement was vague – just what part of the report is Mueller refuting?

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To recap why this is so important: Cohen told lawmakers that he had ended negotiations with Russian officials over the building of a Trump tower by January 2016, when in fact he continued to negotiate the business deal for many more months. After the Buzzfeed report was first published, several lawmakers came forward to say they believed that if Trump indeed instructed Cohen to lie this would be an impeachable offence, offering evidence that the president actively sought to cover up his financial ties to a hostile foreign nation accused of interfering in the presidential election. What will be of interest, too, is more information on the nature of these real estate negotiations: what exactly did Trump’s team talk about with Russian officials?

We’ll be watching for whether Cohen says outright that he lied because the president told him to, whether he confirms that he has told Mueller’s investigators the same and, crucially, whether he can provide any evidence to back his account up. Also of interest is whether anyone else in the administration or the Trump family knew that the president had asked Cohen to lie.

2. How involved was the president in arrangements to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal?

Federal prosecutors said that Cohen had acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump when he made illegal hush money payments to two women who say they had affairs with the president. But what exactly does that mean? Whose idea was it, and how involved was Trump in its execution?

For example, how involved was Trump when Cohen threatened to sue InTouch magazine should it publish Daniels’ story? Daniels has said that she was physically threatened by a man in a car park who told her to “leave Trump alone”. It’s unlikely we’ll get any information on this, because Cohen has previously denied any knowledge of the alleged incident – but any suggestion Trump himself was involved would be huge.

Also, how involved was the president involved in the “catch-and-kill” agreement Cohen helped broker with the media company AMI to silence McDougal? AMI in December signed a non-prosecution agreement in which it outlined meeting with Cohen and another campaign member to discuss suppressing negative stories during the election. Was Trump at this meeting? How involved was he?

Also of interest would be information on who else in the Trump administration or family was aware of these payments.

3. Did the president and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani try to intimidate Cohen into not testifying before Congress?

Cohen had been due to testify before the committee in early February, but he postponed his appearance. Davis, his lawyer, said at the time that Cohen had received “threats” from the president and Giuliani. What were these threats? Witness-tampering and intimidation is, after all, a crime.

4. What else doesn’t Trump want us to know about his business interests?

Having worked for the president for over a decade, Cohen has an insider’s knowledge of his business affairs. According to the Wall Street Journal, Cohen is expected to make public some of the Trump’s financial statements, and allege that he sometimes inflated his net worth and at other times deflated it to avoid tax. Citing an anonymous source, the newspaper said that Cohen would deliver a “behind-the-scenes” account of working for Trump and will say that he witnessed “lies, racism and cheating” by the president.

We hardly need Cohen to tell us that Trump is a racist or a liar, but if Cohen accuses Trump of financial crimes – especially if he provides documentary evidence – this will be massive. The Trump Foundation is already under investigation in New York, where statte Attorney General Barbara Underwood shuttered the organisation last December and said her office has detailed “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation”.

5. More wild cards

Although Cohen is not expected to be questioned directly on Russian election interference or possible collusion by Trump or his campaign, there’s always the potential that Cohen could nevertheless reveal more on either subject

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