Cohen Uses Canceled Checks, Financial Statements in Attacking Trump as ‘Con Man’
CAPITOL HILL —
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s disgraced former personal lawyer and fixer, is headed for three years in prison for lying to Congress, cheating on his taxes and a host of other crimes. He faced a tall order Wednesday to convince lawmakers that Trump had engaged in criminal activity before and after the 2016 election and that the president was a “cheat” and “con man.”
With Democrats wary of Cohen and Republicans poised to shred what little remains of his integrity as a lawyer and operative, Cohen dug several potentially incriminating documents out of boxes in storage in a bid to bolster his explosive claims during testimony before the House Oversight Committee.
The documents included a personal check for $35,000 that Trump signed Aug. 1, 2017, to partially reimburse Cohen for $130,000 in hush money that was paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels to prevent her from going public with her story of a sexual liaison with the president that might have torpedoed his campaign.
Cohen said he made the payment at the direction of Trump, contrary to what the president has said, implicating him in what prosecutors say was a violation of campaign finance law.
The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has acknowledged the payment but has said it did not violate campaign finance laws because it came from Trump’s personal funds rather than his campaign.
Cohen says Trump’s canceled check was part of the hush money payment.
Nevertheless, the appearance of a check written against Trump’s personal account seven months after Trump had taken office was an eye-opener for many of the lawmakers, congressional aides and reporters packed in the hearing room.
Key Comments from Trump's Ex-Attorney Testimony
Among the other documents that Cohen produced before the lawmakers: copies of Trump’s financial statements from 2011 to 2015 showing that the former New York billionaire real estate mogul may have inflated or deflated the value of his assets, depending on whether he wanted to impress potential lenders like Deutsche Bank or financial publications like Forbes, or sought to minimize his exposure to real estate and income taxes.
Cohen also revealed copies of letters he wrote on Trump’s behalf threatening the president’s high school and colleges and the College Board to not release his grades or test scores.
Cohen, the most high-profile witness to testify against a sitting American president since former White House Counselor John Dean implicated President Richard Nixon in 1973 in a cover-up conspiracy, has emerged as a star witness in a wide-ranging federal investigation into Trump’s business and political affairs.
Cohen came into the hearing with many questions about his checkered past and credibility as a witness. Republicans blasted the committee’s Democratic leadership for inviting a liar and scofflaw to testify before Congress.
“We’ve brought the committee to its knees,” said Republican Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia. “This is a mockery of what our purpose is.”
Trump lashes out from Hanoi
Trump, in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi for a nuclear summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, accused Cohen of lying.
Cohen, who last year pleaded guilty to nine criminal counts, acknowledged questions about his credibility and repeatedly apologized to members of Congress and his friends and family.
He said that he spent the last week scouring through boxes of documents in search of evidence to corroborate his testimony. The documents were part of a trove of evidence seized by FBI agents from Cohen’s office, home and hotel room last year. Investigators later returned the documents to Cohen.
“I recognize that some of you may doubt and attack me on my credibility,” Cohen said. “It is for this reason that I have incorporated into this opening statement documents that are irrefutable and demonstrate that the information you’ll hear is accurate and truthful.”
In his opening statement, Cohen recounted how Trump directed him to silence Daniels as well as former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had also alleged an affair with Trump. Trump denied both women’s allegations.
To pay off Daniels, Cohen said, he was directed by Trump to use his personal funds from a home equity line of credit in order to “avoid any money being traced back to him (Trump) that could negatively impact his campaign.”
Cohen testified that Trump spread out his reimbursements over 11 months to make them look like Cohen was on a retainer for legal services. A second $35,000 check shared with the committee was signed in March 2017 by Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.
He said one of his biggest regrets was that he lied to first lady Melania Trump about the payoffs.
‘Catch and kill’ scheme
Cohen arranged for tabloid publisher American Media Inc. to pay McDougal $150,000 during the campaign, but he said Trump never reimbursed the company for the hush money payment. AMI has confirmed it bought the rights to McDougal’s story in a “catch and kill” scheme and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Republicans on the committee sought to cast doubt on the significance of the checks. Rep. Mark De Saulnier of California said the checks do not prove reimbursement for the hush money payment.
However, Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York, said the checks supported Cohen’s claim that they were for reimbursement for silencing Daniels.
“Certainly the documents he presented bolstered his credibility,” Gershman said. “They do provide corroboration.”
The financial documents turned in by Cohen put Trump’s net worth at $4.2 billion in 2011 and $4.5 billion in 2012, and $8.4 billion in 2013. During the 2016 campaign, Trump boasted that he was a really “rich man” worth more than $10 billion. But Bloomberg News estimated his net worth at about $2.9 billion.
Cohen said that while Trump exaggerated his wealth to get a good bank loan or a better insurance deal, he sometimes understated his assets to pay less in taxes.
The Trump Organization has denied the allegations.
Not everything Cohen alleged about Trump was supported by documentary evidence. Cohen claimed that his former boss knew and approved of a controversial June 2016 meeting between Trump advisers and a group of Russians, a claim Trump has dismissed.
Cohen said he recalled being in a room with then-candidate Trump when Donald Trump Jr. walked in behind his father and whispered into his ear, “The meeting is all set.”
“I remember Mr. Trump saying, ‘OK, good … let me know,’” Cohen testified.
Donald Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting with the Russians after learning that they had “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton and has said that his father didn’t know about it.
But Cohen said, “Nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval.”
Cohen also accused Trump of involvement in secret efforts by his associates to obtain Democratic emails stolen by Russian operatives and handed over to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
During a July 18 or 19, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with Trump, Cohen recalled Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, calling to inform the Republican candidate that WikiLeaks was about to release a “massive dump” of damaging emails about Clinton’s campaign.
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great,’” Cohen testified, recalling that Trump had put Stone on a speakerphone.
WikiLeaks leaked the stolen emails July 22, 2016. Stone was indicted by a grand jury last month in connection with efforts to solicit the emails from WikiLeaks in coordination with Trump campaign officials. He has pleaded not guilty.
During his testimony, Cohen also raised the possibility that Trump’s legal problems may run deeper. He said federal prosecutors in New York are investigating other criminal matters as part of a broader look at Trump’s business and political activities.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, said Cohen came off as a truthful witness.
“Everyone is going to hear this testimony and realize that Mr. Cohen has a very checkered past, has lied to the IRS, and to state and local officials in New York,” Amey said. “But that doesn’t mean once a liar always a liar. At some point Cohen decided to turn things around and start telling the truth. He seems to be trying to provide truthful statements to the committee.”