Cohen returns to Capitol Hill after slamming Trump as liar
By MARY CLARE JALONICK, ERIC TUCKER and MICHAEL R. SISAK
Thursday, February 28
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a damning depiction of Donald Trump, the president’s former lawyer cast him as a racist and a con man who used his inner circle to cover up politically damaging allegations about sex and who lied throughout the 2016 election campaign about his business interests in Russia.
A day after publicly testifying before the House’s oversight committee, Michael Cohen returned Thursday to Capitol Hill, this time to testify behind closed doors to the House intelligence committee.
Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, told lawmakers Wednesday that Trump had advance knowledge and embraced the news that emails damaging to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would be released during the campaign. But he also said he had no “direct evidence” that Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to get him elected, the primary question of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Cohen, shaking off incessant criticism from Republicans anxious to paint him as a felon and a liar, became the first Trump insider to pull back the curtain on a version of the inner workings of Trump’s political and business operations. He likened the president to a “mobster” who demanded blind loyalty from underlings and expected them to lie on his behalf to conceal information and protect him — even if it meant breaking the law.
“I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore,” Cohen declared.
“My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything: my family’s happiness, friendships, my law license, my company, my livelihood, my honor, my reputation and soon my freedom,” Cohen said. “I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country.”
Cohen’s matter-of-fact testimony about secret payments and lies unfolded as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. At a Vietnam hotel and unable to ignore the drama thousands of miles away, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
Later, Trump, speaking at a press conference in Vietnam after the summit with Kim ended early, said he was a “little impressed” that Cohen told Congress there was “no collusion” between his presidential campaign and Russia.
Trump said Thursday he tried to watch as much of Cohen’s marathon congressional hearing as he could. He slammed the hearing as “fake” and said it was a “terrible thing” for Democrats to hold it during the summit.
In testimony that cut to the heart of federal investigations encircling the White House, Cohen said he arranged a hush money payment to a porn actress at Trump’s behest and agreed to lie about it to the public and the first lady. Cohen said he had lied by claiming that Trump was “not knowledgeable” about the transaction even though Trump had directly arranged for his reimbursement. And he said he was left with the unmistakable impression Trump wanted him to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate project, though the president never directly told him so.
In one revelation, Cohen said prosecutors in New York were investigating conversations Trump or his advisers had with him after his office and hotel room were raided by the FBI last April. Cohen said he could not discuss that conversation, the last contact he said he has had with the president or anyone acting on his behalf, because it remains under investigation.
The appearance marked the latest step in Cohen’s evolution from legal fixer for the president — he once boasted he’d “take a bullet” for Trump — to a foe who has implicated him in federal campaign finance violations. The hearing proceeded along parallel tracks, with Democrats focusing on allegations against Trump while Republicans sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility and the proceeding itself.
As Republicans blasted him as a convicted liar, a mostly unrattled Cohen sought to blunt the attacks by repeatedly acknowledging his own failings. He called himself a “fool,” warned lawmakers of the perils of blind loyalty to a leader undeserving of it and pronounced himself ashamed of what he’d done to protect Trump.
Cohen is due to begin a three-year prison sentence in May, and he described himself as cooperative with multiple investigations in hopes of reducing his time behind bars. He is seen as a vital witness for federal prosecutors because of his proximity to the president during key episodes under investigation and their decade-long professional relationship.
The first of six Trump aides charged in the Trump-Russia investigation to testify publicly about crimes committed during the 2016 campaign and in the months that followed, Cohen also delivered biting personal commentary on a president he said never expected to win in the first place.
“He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election,” Cohen said. “The campaign — for him — was always a marketing opportunity.”
He recounted how Trump made him threaten schools he attended to not release his grades and SAT scores and denigrated blacks as “too stupid” to vote for him. He said Trump once confided to him that, despite his public explanation of a medical deferment from the Vietnam War because of bone spurs, he never had any intention of fighting there.
“I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now,” Cohen said.
Cohen gave lawmakers his first-person account of how he arranged to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said they had sex with Trump. He described a February 2017 conversation with Trump in the Oval Office in which the president reassured him that reimbursement checks sent through Federal Express were coming but would take some time to get through the White House system.
He said the president spoke to him a year later to discuss the public messaging around the transaction and had even once put his wife, Melania Trump, on the phone so that Cohen could lie to her.
“Lying to the first lady is one of my biggest regrets,” Cohen said. “She is a kind, good person. I respect her greatly, and she did not deserve that.”
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange payments to buy the silence of the porn actress and the former Playboy model in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. Cohen has said he acted out of “blind loyalty.”
He said he was presenting the committee with a copy of a check Trump wrote from his personal bank account after he became president to reimburse Cohen for the hush money payments. He offered up other exhibits as well, including examples of financial statements he said Trump had drawn up to show he was wealthier than he really was.
In an allegation relating to Mueller’s probe, Cohen said he overheard Trump confidant Roger Stone telling the candidate in the summer of 2016 that WikiLeaks would dump damaging information about Clinton.
Trump put Stone on speakerphone as Stone relayed that he had communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that “within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Cohen said. Damaging emails U.S. officials say were hacked by Russia were later released by WikiLeaks.
Trump responded by saying “wouldn’t that be great,” Cohen said.
Stone disputed that account Wednesday, and Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, said Stone and Assange did not have the telephone call that Cohen described.
Cohen’s claims that Trump had advance knowledge of the emails contradict the president’s assertions that he was in the dark, and it is unclear how legally problematic that could be for Trump anyway. Mueller has not suggested that mere awareness of WikiLeaks’ plans, as Stone is purported to have had, is by itself a crime.
Cohen also suggested Trump implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project. Cohen has admitted lying about the project, which he says Trump knew about as Cohen was negotiating with Russia during the campaign. Cohen said Trump did not directly tell him to lie, but “he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing.”
Cohen said he does not have direct evidence that Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election but he has “suspicions,” including after a June 2016 meeting between the president’s oldest son and a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘colluding.’ Was there something odd about the back-and-forth praise with President Putin?” Cohen said. “Yes, but I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion.”
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Lisa Mascaro, Chad Day, Michael Balsamo and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
Follow all of AP’s Trump Investigations coverage at https://apnews.com/TrumpInvestigations
Michael Cohen’s verbal somersault, ‘I lied, but I’m not a liar,’ translated by a rhetoric expert
February 27, 2019
Author: Jennifer Mercieca, Associate Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University
Disclosure statement: Jennifer Mercieca does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Texas A&M University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Michael Cohen, who admits to lying, also says he’s not a liar.
Can we separate what someone does from who they are? Cohen thinks we should and it would help us to understand both him and Trump better.
Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, testified before Congress about his former client Wednesday.
Cohen claimed that he wanted “to correct the record” about his previous testimony. Correcting the record now, Cohen hoped, would prove to the nation that lying was what Cohen did, but not who he is.
“I have lied, but I am not a liar,” said Cohen. “I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man,” he assured Congress.
At issue in Cohen’s testimony, therefore, were the points of stasis, a Greek term used here to mean “points of argument.” Those stases centered on fact and quality: What happened and how should we judge it?
As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and argumentation who is finishing a book about Trump’s presidential campaign, I paid close attention to how Cohen explained his actions on Trump’s behalf to Congress.
Cohen relied on the argumentative strategy of dissociation – it’s not this, it’s that – to carefully separate his actions from his essence and Trump’s actions from Trump’s essence.
Exonerate Cohen, implicate Trump
According to this strategy a person who lies is not necessarily a liar; a person who does bad things is not necessarily a bad person.
The strategy invites audiences to separate the elements of an apparent unity – the person who does the thing is the thing – so that each can be judged separately. By doing this, Cohen attempted to exonerate himself and implicate Trump in several fraudulent schemes and attempted to define Trump’s essence as a “racist, a con man, and a cheat.”
Trump called Cohen a liar when he tweeted – and then retweeted while Cohen was testifying – that Cohen was disbarred for “lying and fraud” and that he lied again in his testimony. Cohen is a liar who lied, it is his essence, claimed Trump.
Likewise, Republican lawmakers who questioned him rejected Cohen’s attempt to dissociate actions from essence.
“If you’ve lied, then you are a liar,” Georgia Rep. Jody Hice told Cohen, in one of the more heated exchanges of the testimony.
Cohen’s testimony wasn’t just about his own essence, it was also about Trump’s essence.
“Mr. Trump is an enigma,” testified Cohen. “He is complicated, as am I. He has both good and bad, as do we all.”
Cohen explained to Congress that Trump’s complicated nature, like his own, could best be understood by separating Trump’s actions from his essence.
According to Cohen, Trump’s actions made him appear to be something that he is not. Like the Trump brand’s signature gilding, what was manifest on the outside was not what was on the inside. Trump’s exterior may glitter with gold, but according to Cohen, Trump does not have a heart of gold.
“The bad far outweighs the good,” said Cohen. Trump “is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.”
Between action and essence
A central issue of Cohen’s testimony was about the distinction between appearance and reality, between his and Trump’s actions and their respective essences.
Cohen has invited the nation to render two separate judgments about himself and about Trump. The nation ought to render opposite judgments, argued Cohen, but both cases ought to be decided based upon a person’s essential character.
To make sense of Cohen’s testimony, the fundamental question is this: How should the actions of people like Trump and Cohen be judged?
Is a person a liar because they lie? Is a person kind because they appear to be kind? Should we dissociate the quality of the person from their actions? The fate of the nation may hang on its citizens’ ability to judge correctly.
“Mr. Cohen, you call Mr. Trump a cheat,” Kentucky Rep. James Comer said to Cohen during the testimony. “What would you call yourself?” Comer asked.
Cohen answered: “A fool.”
Was Cohen a fool – or did he merely act foolishly?
Michael Cohen’s testimony on Trump business reveals conduct that’s widespread in corporate America
February 27, 2019
Cohen testified that the Trump Organization is more about Trump than doing business.
Author: Bert Spector, Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University
Disclosure statement: Bert Spector does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The Trump Organization, Donald Trump’s private, family-run business, is well known to have operated at the fringes of what’s legal. Trump got his start in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of New York City real estate development, after all.
And so, as someone who pays close attention to how businesses operate, I was glued to the Feb. 27 testimony of former Trump “fixer” and personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who also served as an executive vice president of the Trump Organization.
While I learned little that was new, the testimony was still troubling – but not for what it said about the Trump Organization.
Rather, what I found most noteworthy is how the conduct attributed to Trump the businessman, however extreme, actually reflects actions and attitudes that are widespread within corporate America generally.
Putting leaders on a pedestal
It is well known that Trump runs his enterprises – both business and governmental – on loyalty, rather than, say, competence or performance.
What Cohen highlighted was just how debilitating, even destructive, the lionization of individual leaders and expectation of loyalty can be, whether we’re talking about Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Apple’s Steve Jobs.
Cohen said he was “mesmerized” by Trump, calling him a “giant” and an “icon.” Being around Trump was “intoxicating,” he said, and “everyone’s job at the Trump organization was to protect Mr. Trump.”
Cohen’s testimony revealed just how blinding that commitment to a mesmerizing individual became, leading him to replace judgment with worship. Cohen admitted both to lying to Congress and to falsifying campaign finance reports in the name of standing by his boss.
Cohen’s description may seem startling. But to someone who has extensively studied leadership in business organizations, I recognize an unfortunate pattern that dominates corporate America.
Corporations all too often fall into the trap of romanticizing leaders, often to the detriment of performance. By placing their own role front and center, CEOs enhance their self-esteem and justify their power and prodigious financial rewards.
And when employees attribute traits like heroism to their leaders, they tend to imbue them with the characteristics of charisma, strength and decisiveness. What gets submerged, unfortunately, is self-judgment and individual initiative.
It’s a comforting delusion. There is ample evidence to suggest that the subsequent performance of all-powerful charismatic CEOs often lags behind that of rival companies led by less celebrated executives.
Lionizing leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can lead to bad results.
Another highlight of the hearing was Cohen’s testimony that Trump repeatedly deflated his assets to reduce the real estate and other taxes he owed – while inflating them when it served his purposes. Cohen called Trump a “cheat.”
Even though Trump’s alleged behaviors may seem extreme, they are all too characteristic of corporate America’s startlingly widespread penchant to reduce its tax burden – or avoid them altogether – by pushing at the boundaries of legality.
Many of the biggest American companies take advantage of tax loopholes, like accelerated appreciation, overseas tax havens and so forth, to accomplish the same goal that Trump allegedly sought: a lower tax bill.
More than half of Fortune 500 companies with earnings of more than US $3.8 trillion paid zero taxes for at least one year between 2008 and 2015. More recently, Amazon paid nothing on $9.4 billion in profits in 2018.
Of course, we won’t know precisely how successful Trump was in avoiding taxes until his tax returns are revealed.
Checks and balances
But now we get to the big difference.
All corporations have their flaws. But when they are public, there are also checks and balances thanks to independent board members and vigilant shareholder advocates, as well as myriad governance and transparency rules imposed by the Security and Exchange Commission.
As head of a private business, Trump was able to avoid virtually all of that accountability and transparency. The Cohen hearing suggests Trump may finally learn what it feels like to be the CEO of a public company.
Joshua M. Pearce, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michigan Technological University: You did a commendable job of laying out the problem – but your solution seems sadly lacking. Many of the examples you gave of the problem were for public companies. Yet the solutions of “independent board members and vigilant shareholder advocates, as well as myriad governance and transparency rules imposed by the Security and Exchange Commission. ” obviously are ineffective. How do we a) fix the fact that meritocracy is obviously broken in the corporate world? and b) provide some form of effective oversight for what should be criminal behavior – but because of corruption merely is “pushing at the boundaries of legality ”?
Brian Jarvis: Which is why no one should wrap themselves with the organization, put leaders on a pedestal, nor define themselves by the company or person who employs them. As for tax avoidance – it’s not just corporate America – that should be everyone’s pastime – the lower the tax bill the better. Many businesses and residents try various methods to get their real estate value lowered when it comes to taxes; but them raised when it comes to sale. That’s simply what people do. As for accelerated depreciation – anyone who has invested in real estate has done this. It’s never considered a loophole; it’s a strategy explicitly allowed. Yes, Trump will finally feel what it’s like to be the CEO of a public company. And most will continue to practice tax avoidance. I will.
Michael Cohen Destroyed Not Just Trump but Also His House GOP Defenders
A president who talks like a mob boss got protected by his GOP mob-boss wannabes. Cohen, a former Trump enforcer himself, made them all look ludicrous—and vulnerable.
By Joan Walsh
We the American people are governed today by very bad men, and a few bad women, and after two years, this humiliation feels like a chronic illness for which there’s no relief, a mysterious infection nobody can diagnose or treat. We all know well that the president is a liar, a serial sexual harasser, a business cheat, the plutocrat’s plutocrat; a man who flouts American political norms and even laws; who flaunts his ties to dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin; a man who talks and acts disconcertingly like a mob boss. The corruption of the president and the men (and a few women) around him is obvious and demoralizing. The scandals break so frequently, we’re becoming inured to them. Our chronic illness makes it hard to adequately respond, as individuals and as a nation.
Could Michael Cohen’s stunning Wednesday testimony—about Trump’s lies, his greed, his cheating in business and marriage, his cruelty, his dealings with Russia while running for president, his prior knowledge about the WikiLeaks assault on the Clinton campaign—begin our needed national cure? It’s complicated. Cohen is himself a bad man, despite his testimony to the contrary, who did bad things—some for Trump, but many for his own enrichment. There can be no cure for us, of course, until the president leaves the White House. But as the bad men around Donald Trump are forced to tell the truth, we get closer to that day of reckoning. Wednesday surely brought us closer, but it’s not clear yet how much.
When Cohen’s written testimony dropped Tuesday night, it was shocking to read the president’s former lawyer state coldly: “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.” We all know that, but Cohen went on to provide, as they say, the receipts: checks and wire transfers paid to cover up affairs, copies of Trump’s financial statements, threats he made to block the release of Trump’s college transcripts and draft records, his memories of Trump’s casual but committed racism, as well as already public Trump tweets in which he called Cohen a “rat” and appeared to threaten his family, like the mob boss he so frequently appears to be.
And just like Mafia minions, Trump’s House GOP defenders moved quickly to thuggishly defend him. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted Tuesday night: “Hey @MichaelCohen212—Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately reprimanded Gaetz for what was clearly a threat to a congressional witness, and Gaetz walked it back. But then he showed up at the hearing, even though he’s not a committee member, glowering at Cohen like a street-level enforcer loitering at the back of the courtroom trying to intimidate someone testifying against a mob boss. (The Florida bar association just opened an investigation into Gaetz’s threat, probably just the beginning of his troubles.)
Likewise, as the House Oversight Committee hearing began, GOP ranking member Jim Jordan and Freedom Caucus wingnut Mark Meadows did all they could to smear Cohen and shut it down—ostensibly because the committee received Cohen’s written testimony later than required. Chair Elijah Cummings and his fellow Democrats thwarted them. “The days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over,” Cummings declared.
Amen. Elections have consequences.
The minor GOP mafiosi had been defeated, but they would not be silenced. They used all of their time, all day, to defend Trump and demean Cohen, as well as Cummings and the Democrats, but they ultimately failed. Every time they smeared Cohen as a liar and a fraud, they implicitly reminded us that Trump employed this liar and a fraud as an attorney for 10 years. It was not a good look for them.
Given his many enemies, Cohen appropriately opened his testimony with a plea to keep his family safe, his voice breaking. While one claim by Trump’s defenders is beyond debate—Cohen is by his own admission a liar and a perjurer; he’s going to prison for it—before the committee, he came across as contrite and sometimes broken. Battered, discredited, Cohen was nonetheless compelling and, to my eyes, mostly credible. While Republicans tried to paint him as an irrepressible liar, there will in fact be a steep price to him for any further lies to Congress. He is going to prison for at least three years; more lying would surely stiffen his sentence. “I don’t think my colleagues are afraid you’re gonna lie; I think they’re afraid you’ll tell the truth,” Democratic Representative Steven Lynch concluded, and he was right.
In addition to his shocking written testimony, Cohen made other revelations under questioning by committee members. One might have no legal import but stood out nonetheless: He told Rep. Jackie Speier that Trump got him to intimidate or threaten “people or organizations” more than 500 times over 10 years.
But there were plenty of admissions with legal implications as well: Cohen testified that he conferred with Trump and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow before his May 2017 testimony to Congress and said the president encouraged him to deliver the message that there was no Russian collusion. He also admitted that he told the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that Trump’s Moscow tower discussions took place before the Republican primary began when they continued until June of 2016. Asked why he couldn’t talk about his final conversation with Trump, he revealed that it was about matters that were under investigation by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, an investigation Congress apparently hadn’t previously known about. He testified that Trump lied when he denied knowing Russian mobster (and FBI informant) Felix Sater.
When Cohen confirmed that Trump pursued his Moscow Tower deal through much of 2016, lied about it repeatedly during his presidential campaign, and had Cohen and others seek Putin’s assistance with the deal, New Yorker writer Susan Glasser termed his admission the “classic definition of kompromat Putin had on Trump” on Twitter. No need for a pee tape, people.
Maybe most important, it was the first time the American people got to see one of the men at the heart of the case against the president, testifying against Trump in his own words. This is the constitutionally mandated oversight the House GOP has refused to conduct for two years. Cohen’s finest moment came when he challenged his GOP critics for attacking him by pointing out they were acting just like him.
“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” he said. “That puts you into the same position that I’m in. The more people who do what I did, follow Mr. Trump blindly, will suffer the same consequences I did.” He added: “Everybody’s job at the Trump Org was to protect Mr. Trump. Every day, most of us knew we were coming in and we were going to lie for him on something. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now in this country. It’s exactly what’s happening here in government.”
Cohen testified about the “code” all Trumplings understood, with no need for Trump to order them to do bad, illegal things. “If you’ve ever covered a mob trial, that’s what it sounds like,” said CNN’s John King during a break in the action.
The country also got to see its new Democratic House majority in action—including the three new radical women on the Oversight committee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Ocasio-Cortez raised sharp questions about how Trump dodged taxes, Pressley drilled down on Trump’s racism, while Tlaib called out Meadows using black Trump aide Lynne Patton as a prop during the hearing to disprove Cohen’s claim that Trump is a racist—without using Meadows’s name. That prompted a hysterical, farcical protest from Meadows that Cummings tried to placate by calling Meadows a “friend” (with friends like Meadows…) and that ultimately forced Tlaib to insist she wasn’t calling Meadows a racist. To quote the irrepressible Oscars meme on Twitter, Green Book says Meadows isn’t a racist, either. What a farce.
But Tlaib drew blood, ending the daylong hearing by underscoring the ineffectual histrionics of the GOP Trump defenders, those sad mob wannabes. In his closing, an outraged Cummings talked about how Trump and the GOP’s persistent trashing of Cohen as a “rat” might put him in literal physical danger in prison. It’s unclear how the newly ascendant House Democrats will build on what happened Wednesday—in a post-hearing press briefing, Cummings said he was consulting with House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff—but it’s clear that they plan to. On one level, the day felt like practice for long-overdue impeachment hearings. Our long national chronic illness, this mysterious antidemocratic infection we’re enduring—well, it’s not over. But we can maybe imagine a cure.
Joan Walsh, The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.