Democrats who now control the House of Representatives are using the testimony by Donald Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, as a road map in a broad ranging search for incriminating evidence that they hope will justify launching impeachment proceedings to remove President Trump from office. Failing that, Democrats plan to intensify their attacks on Trump’s character by scheduling hearings by half a dozen House committees into all aspects of Trump’s past business dealings and his actions as president in an effort to discredit him in the eyes of voters and defeat his 2020 bid for re-election.
In three days of testimony last week before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cohen described the president as a “con man,” a “cheat” and a “racist,” and left a long trail of bread crumbs for Democrats to follow as they seek to tear apart all aspects of Trump’s life. Cohen mentioned the names of dozens of contacts, Trump business associates and family members whom Democrats have already begun to call upon to testify or produce new internal documents that can be used against the president.
“All you have to do is follow the transcript [of Cohen’s testimony],” said Congressman Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the Oversight Committee. “If there were names that were mentioned, or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we want to take a look at all of that.”
Other Democrat congressional committee chairmen were quick to follow up on Cohen’s leads, and renew old accusations that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election, despite the failure of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year long investigation to produce any new evidence to support that allegation.
SCHIFF REVIVES THE RUSSIAN COLLUSION CHARGE
In an interview with CBS on Sunday, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claimed “there is abundant evidence of collusion,” citing the circumstances which led to the infamous summer 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and senior members of the Trump campaign team.
“I think there is direct evidence in the emails from the Russians through their intermediary offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of what is described in writing as the Russian government effort to help elect Donald Trump,” Schiff said. “They offer that dirt. There is an acceptance of that offer in writing from the president’s son, Don Jr., and there is overt acts and furtherance of that. That to me is direct evidence. But there’s also abundant circumstantial evidence,” referring to Cohen’s testimony and the charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
But all those who attended the Trump Tower meeting have testified that the promised Russian “dirt” on Clinton was never delivered to the Trump campaign, that the meeting was considered a failure by both sides, and was never followed up.
NADLER DEMANDS EVIDENCE FROM 80 TRUMP CONTACTS
On Monday, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, released a list of 81 names of persons and entities from whom his committee is requesting documents. The list includes Trump’s adult children and many of the senior employees of the Trump Organization, including the chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, the chief legal officer, Alan Garten, and Trump’s personal assistant, Rhona Graff. The list also includes senior members of Trump’s White House staff, including former White House Counsel Don McGahn and his assistant; former attorney general Jeff Sessions; Thomas Barrack, the man who led Trump’s inaugural committee; Jay Sekulow, who was one of Trump’s personal lawyers; and Hope Hicks, Trump’s trusted former communications director.
Nadler called the requests “the first steps of an investigation into the alleged corruption, obstruction, and other abuses of power by President Trump, his associates and members of his administration.
“We will act quickly to gather this information, assess the evidence, and follow the facts where they lead with full transparency with the American people. This is a critical time for our nation, and we have a responsibility to investigate these matters and hold hearings for the public to have all the facts. That is exactly what we intend to do.”
In an interview on ABC, Nadler said, “It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice,” strongly suggesting that he was already convinced that Trump should be impeached. But when asked directly about launching formal impeachment proceedings, Nadler was quick to say that “we don’t have the facts yet, [and] impeachment is a long way down the road.”
When pressed on the issue, Nadler admitted that more work needs to be done before a successful impeachment effort can be launched. “We have to do the investigations and get all this. We do not now have the evidence all sorted out and everything to do an impeachment. Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the Trump voters that you’re not just trying to … steal the last — to reverse the results of the last election,” Nadler said.
Nadler’s caution is well-justified. Democrats have also learned the lesson from the politically disastrous results of the Republican failure 20 years ago to impeach then-President Bill Clinton.
Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, expressed concern that Nadler was embarking on an effort with no clear direction, in search of anything that could help bring down the president. “The scope of the Democrats’ race to find something bad on this president is getting more and more concerning…We don’t even know what the Mueller report says, but Democrats are already hedging their bets. After recklessly prejudging the president for obstruction, Chairman Nadler is pursuing evidence to back up his conclusion because, as he admits, ‘We don’t have the facts yet.’
“Where are they willing to stop? I don’t know what they’re trying to do or where they’re trying to go,” Collins said.
EACH COMMITTEE ON ITS OWN “WITCH HUNT”
Other House committee chairmen also announced that they were submitting their own demands for testimony and documents related to all aspects of Trump’s affairs.
Chairman Cummings said his oversight committee will also look into the legality of the operation of Trump’s luxury hotel in Washington, DC, as well as Trump’s reported personal intervention to obtain a security clearance for his son-on-law, Jared Kushner.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal (D-MA), is expected to demand the release of Trump’s closely guarded income tax returns, which Democrats believe will reveal more paths for investigation.
Maxine Waters (D-CA), the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, is already focused on the relationship between Trump and his primary lender for real estate deals, Deutshe Bank, as well as any connection that same bank’s admitted complicity in Russian illegal money laundering efforts.
Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is seeking more information on what transpired during Trump’s private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit last year, and has said his committee will hold hearings “on the mysteries swirling around Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies, and how those dark dealings affect our national security.”
The Trump White House is likely to push back against many of those requests with claims of executive privilege, touching off a series of long court battles as the clock ticks down to the 2020 election. Another potential problem for the Democrats is that their multiple, simultaneous investigations of Trump’s contacts could easily get in each other’s way. The Democrat staff of the various committees say that they are meeting regularly to share information and co-ordinate their investigations, but there are practical limits to how effective such efforts at cooperation can be in a highly-charged political environment.
ASKING FOR TOO MUCH INFORMATION TO PROCESS
One of the lawyers involved in the Watergate investigation, which forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974 when he was faced with the inevitability of removal by impeachment, told the Washington Post that House Democrats investigating Trump may be asking for more information than they can properly handle.
“I don’t know if they’re looking more to get into a confrontation or whether they’re actually looking for information,” the former counsel said. “This is a lot of material…You have to prioritize and decide what is most important and the best prospects of yielding something that is important and relevant.
“How do they go through all that material and even remember what they are looking for? … It’s a kitchen-sink kind of request that lawyers tend to use in cases where they know stuff is there, but they’re not quite sure where it is or what it is.”
Democrats are determined to bring Trump down, but they have all but given up hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report will give them sufficient ammunition to convince the public that Trump’s removal from office is justified.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused Nadler and other Democrat committee chairmen of resorting to desperate measures to justify the continued investigations into the president.
“They’re setting a whole new course because there’s no collusion so they want to build something else,” McCarthy told ABC.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the new flurry of investigations “disgraceful and abusive,” and labeled them a “fishing expedition.”
“The Democrats are not after the truth,” she said. “They are after the president.”
NADLER PROMISES TO BROADEN MUELLER’S INVESTIGATION
The investigation by Nadler’s committee into wrongdoing by Trump will have a much broader focus than Mueller’s investigation, which is limited to allegations of Trump-Russia collusion and related matters.
“Over the last several years, President Trump has evaded accountability for his near-daily attacks on our basic legal, ethical, and constitutional rules and norms,” Nadler said. “Investigating these threats to the rule of law is an obligation of Congress and a core function of the House Judiciary Committee.”
“All of these have to be investigated and laid out to the American people. This investigation goes far beyond collusion,” said Nadler.
Congressional investigators will look into Cohen’s admission to committing campaign finance law violations at Trump’s request, and the question of whether Trump’s continuing business interests are prohibited by the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
Democrats realize that they will have to generate the required evidence against Trump to be certain their impeachment effort will succeed. Cohen’s public testimony last week was the first step in that process.
In last week’s testimony, Cohen directly contradicted the president’s claim that he was unaware of the infamous 2016 meeting with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Cohen said he witnessed Trump’s son, Don Jr., enter his father’s office sometime in early June 2016 and tell him in a low voice, “The meeting is all set.” But Cohen later acknowledged he did not know for certain what meeting Don Jr. was talking about.
Cohen also claimed that Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, previewed Cohen’s 2017 congressional testimony regarding the negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen has already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the duration of Trump’s negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow; he originally testified that the proposed project in Moscow was dead by January 2016, before the Republican primaries had begun. Cohen said last week that he had altered his testimony to avoid contradicting Trump’s campaign-trail insistence that he had no pending business with or commercial ties to Russia. The Trump “party line,” was that, “There’s no Russian contact. There’s no Russian collusion. There’s no Russian deals.” In fact, according to Cohen’s guilty plea, the Moscow proposal wasn’t killed until June 2016 or later.
Sekulow issued a response saying, “Today’s testimony by Michael Cohen that attorneys for the president edited or changed his statement to Congress to alter the duration of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations is completely false.”
Cohen said that Trump was aware of the reimbursement arrangements for $130,000 in hush money Cohen paid on Trump’s behalf. He said that he received 12 monthly payments, so that they would look a regular legal retainer. Cohen provided the committee with copies of two checks. One was a personal check dated Aug. 1, 2017, which he said was signed by the president. The other was a business check dated March 17, 2017, which Cohen said was signed by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer.
POTENTIAL BANK AND INSURANCE FRAUD
Cohen said that Trump deliberately undervalued his assets to save money on his taxes, while inflating their value on financial statements he would submit to journalists, and when making applications to banks and insurance companies. Cohen supplied samples of the manipulated financial statements from 2011, 2012 and 2013, and named three senior officials of the Trump Organization he said could corroborate that claim, which, if proven true, could lead to charges that Trump was guilty of bank and insurance fraud.
Cohen asserted that Trump knew in advance that WikiLeaks planned in July 2016 to release a batch of emails stolen by Russians that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Cohen said he overheard a speakerphone conversation between Trump and his friend Roger Stone, who said that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told him that there would be a “massive dump” of Clinton emails within days. Cohen said that Trump responded to Trump by saying, “Wouldn’t that be great!”
Stone was indicted in January by the special counsel investigation and charged with seven counts of lying to Congress and obstruction of justice. However, the special counsel did not allege that Stone spoke to Assange or that he gave Trump advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks Democrat National Committee (DNC) email dump.
Mueller’s prosecutors say that about the same time that Cohen claims to have overheard Trump’s call with Stone, WikiLeaks received a batch of internal emails that Russians stole from the computers of the DNC and published them four days later, on July 22.
Trump, however, denies that he ever discussed WikiLeaks with Stone. Stone has also said that Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true, and a tweet from WikiLeaks also claims that Assange “never had a telephone call with Roger Stone.”
Cohen called Trump a racist, recalling that when he accompanied Trump in a car riding through a poor Chicago neighborhood, Trump had said, “only black people would live that way,” and on another occasion Trump had said that blacks were “too stupid” to vote for him.
Cohen described a widespread culture of lying around Trump which evolved from “trivial” to “significant and dangerous,” as Trump graduated from private businessman and television star to the Republican presidential nominee.
COHEN CLAIMS HE WAS “MESMERIZED” BY TRUMP
Cohen said he carried out Trump’s orders “and concealed his illicit acts” without hesitation because, “I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong.”
“Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating. When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself – that you were somehow changing the world.”
At another point in his testimony, Cohen said that Trump had avoided saying anything to him that might be directly incriminating. “He doesn’t give you orders; he speaks in code,” Cohen testified, “and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”
Cohen also said that Trump was just as surprised by his success in the 2016 presidential campaign as the pundits. “He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign – for him – was a marketing opportunity,” Cohen said.
“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great,” Cohen testified. “Mr. Trump would often say this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’”
COHEN STILL MAINTAINS SOME RESPECT FOR TRUMP
Cohen did not accuse Trump of conspiring with Russia to influence the election, but said he was “all about winning and will do what is necessary to win.”
In his demeanor and language, it was clear that despite everything, Cohen still retains a certain respect for the president. He always referred to him as “Mr. Trump.”
Cohen disappointed Democrats when he flatly denied rumors that Trump had engaged in other forms of scandalous conduct, such as taking drugs or failing to make alimony payments. Cohen also said that Trump has accomplished some great things in office.
Cohen dropped hints during his testimony last week that he is still involved in other Trump-related criminal investigations. He asserted that federal prosecutors in Manhattan had asked him not to discuss his communication with Trump after the FBI raided his home and office in April.
When he was asked whether there was “any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump” that had not been discussed at the hearing, Cohen responded, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
Former New Jersey governor and US prosecutor Chris Christie, who is a longtime friend of Donald Trump, was impressed by the serious implications of that remark for the president. He said, “the words that [Cohen] said today that would send a chill up my spine at the White House would be, ‘I am in constant contact with the Southern District.’”
COHEN HAD AN AX TO GRIND
Republicans on the committee did not directly challenge many of Cohen’s statements, but they did dispute his credibility and characterized Cohen as a disgruntled former employee who had an ax to grind. Democrats and media reporters, on the other hand, treated most of his assertions last week as credible, with one notable exception: his claim that he was offered a job with the Trump administration but turned them down because, “I did not want to go to the White House.”
The claim was contradicted by the sentencing memo filed by prosecutors in Cohen’s case. It said that, “During and after the campaign, Cohen privately told friends and colleagues, including in seized text messages, that he expected to be given a prominent role and title in the new administration. When that did not materialize, Cohen found a way to monetize his relationship with and access to the President.” Cohen sold his services to several foreign companies, including Swiss drugmaker Novartis, for six-figure fees which were funneled through a company he set up called “Essential Consultants LLC.”
CNN reported that Cohen told associates he believed he could be named White House chief of staff. Cohen was crushed when he was not offered the job, which went to Reince Priebus. Trump’s son, Eric, tweeted that Cohen’s lobbying for the chief of staff job “was the biggest joke in the campaign.”
COHEN’S CREDIBILITY PROBLEM
Throughout his daylong public testimony last week, Republicans repeatedly used Cohen’s admitted lies to challenge his veracity. Cohen has pleaded guilty to nine felonies, including tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. In May, he is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison sentence. Trump and his supporters suggest that Cohen is lying to Congress again in an attempt to win a reduction in his jail term.
“You’re a disgraced lawyer. You’re a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood,” said Congressman Paul Gosar (R-AZ). “No one should ever listen to you and give you credibility.”
“Certainly, it’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness in a hearing,” Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) told Cohen, deriding him as a “cheat” and a “fraudster” who is about to go to prison. Jordan added that the Democrats, “just want to use you, Mr. Cohen. You’re their patsy today.”
Republicans said Cohen is hoping to get rich after he leaves prison by signing a movie or book deal detailing his accusations about President Trump and those closest to him. He may have ruined his chance for that, by dishing out all his dirt already there’s nothing left for a book.
IS COHEN’S REMORSE REAL?
Cohen sought to portray himself in his opening remarks to the committee as a penitent man who is sorry for his mistakes, and whose main concern at this point is to protect his family. He apologized to his children “for the pain that I’ve caused them.” When asked at one point if he was “a cheat,” he answered no, “a fool.”
Cohen said that he threatened people at Trump’s request “probably” 500 times, but says now he has turned against Trump for moral reasons.
“Over the past year or so, I have done some real soul-searching. For those who question my motives for being here today, I understand. I have lied, but I am not a liar. I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man. I have fixed things, but I am no longer your ‘fixer,’ Mr. Trump,” Cohen said.
Most Republicans on the committee did not accept Cohen’s remorse as genuine. Congressman Ralph Norman (R-SC) told Cohen he was “trying to decide, are you really sorry for what you did, or you just got caught?” After all, Norman said, “you worked for this man for 10 years.”
At the end of his day of public testimony, Cohen issued a last warning “to those who support the president and his rhetoric as I once did. I pray the country doesn’t make the same mistakes that I have made, or pay the heavy price that my family and I are paying.”