On Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer testified before the House Oversight Committee on “illicit acts” he helped cover up.
In December 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to finance fraud, lying to Congress, and paying “hush money” to two women.
He also struck a deal with prosecutors and will appear before Congress to testify on these illegal acts.
Trump soon became the centre of this investigation; reason: documents revealed that he and his associates downplayed or directly lied about business ties in Russia.
“I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty, of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him,” said Cohen at the hearing.
Who is Michael Cohen?
The 51-year-old has been Trump’s lawyer since the early 2000s and has helped him to acquire properties, reports USA Today.
In 2007, Trump hired him as vice president of The Trump Organisation and as his own special counsel.
He also earned a reputation for being Trump’s “fixer”, someone who ensures that Trump benefits from every interaction he has.
USA Today writes, “For decades, President Trump’s personal attorney has combined legal knowledge, personal wealth and intimidation to unflinchingly promote and defend Trump’s interests and to keep his boss’s secrets out of the public eye.”
Cohen also told Vanity Fair that he would “take a bullet” for Trump.
What did Cohen reveal?
Although Cohen said he did not have direct evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion, he did have proof of financial fraud.
“I also knew that nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval,” Cohen explained.
He said Trump directed him to pay $130,000 to silence Stormy Daniels, a pornstar who alleged she had an affair with Trump. At the time, Daniels’ revelation was damaging Trump’s bid for the 2016 campaign. He explained that Trump reimbursed him that amount after he became President and asked Cohen to lie about the President’s knowledge of this deal.
“Mr. Trump directed me to use my own personal funds from a Home Equity Line of Credit; this would then avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign,” he added.
Cohen also submitted a copy of a $35,000 cheque signed by Trump as proof of the reimbursement. He said Trump paid 11 cheque installments while he was President.
Prosecutors allege that these payments were made from undisclosed funds to protect the campaign and are proof that Trump violated campaign finance laws.
Moreover, Trump’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg and Donald Jr. have both signed these hush money cheques, incriminating them in the fraud as well.
Cohen confirmed that Trump asked a bidder to buy a portrait of himself from an auction at an Art Hamptons event. Then, Trump reimbursed that bidder with funds from his charity.
“The objective was to ensure that his portrait, which was going to be auctioned last, would go for the highest price of any portrait that afternoon,” said Cohen.
Trump also inflated his assets to gain popularity for his riches but deflated them to evade taxes, Cohen claimed.
He stated that Trump ordered him to write letters to educational institutions Trump had attended asking them to keep his grades and SAT scores confidential. He submitted one of those letters as proof.
Dirt on collusion with Russia
In 2017, Cohen wrote a letter to the Senate and House intelligence committees stating that a Trump Tower development project in Moscow had ended in February 2016.
However, on Wednesday, Cohen admitted that he and Trump negotiated this Moscow project months into the campaign and lied about it because he never thought he’d actually win the presidency.
“There were at least half a dozen times between the Iowa Caucus in January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me ‘How’s it going in Russia?’, referring to the Moscow Tower Project,” Cohen said.
In another explosive revelation, Cohen said Trump was aware of Roger Stone’s contact with Wikileaks, a site that allegedly colluded with Russia and released hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.
Cohen said he listened in on a conversation between Stone and Trump because Trump put Stone on speaker.
“Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and… within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Cohen added.
He also said that Trump made extremely racist comments, like asking Cohen to name one country run by a black person that wasn’t a “shithole”.
Cohen is also the first of Trump’s associates to allege that Trump’s oldest son Donald Jr. set up a meeting with Russian officials who claimed to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Cohen said he overheard a hushed conversation between Trump and his son about a meeting being set up.
When asked why the committee should believe him, Cohen said, “I suspect that the special counsel’s office and other government agencies have the information you’re seeking.”
Trump has slammed Cohen and called him a liar. Yesterday, he tweeted that Cohen “is lying in order to reduce his prison time”.
In 2017, Trump attempted to dispel news of his involvement with Russian interference. He tweeted, “I don’t know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy – yet Obama can make a deal with Iran, #1 in terror, no problem!”
Here, Trump is referring to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. This deal offered a relaxation of sanctions on Iran if it limited its nuclear development and allowed international inspection.
However, Trump’s tweet slamming Obama is a false equivalent; Obama made that deal in a diplomatic capacity, as President, while Trump’s personal, non-diplomatic ties to Russia were being investigated.
When Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018, Trump tweeted that he was being witch-hunted.
“There was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!” he said.
On Thursday, Trump claimed that his actions during the election campaign were legal and Cohen’s testimony is moot.
“Even if he was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business,” said Trump.
What is the significance of Cohen’s hearing?
With Lok Sabha elections nearing and talk of social media impacting Indian elections, the Cohen-Trump saga is a perfect playbook for our politicians on what not to do.
Cohen’s lies were attempts to distance Trump from Russia, a country that the US has a precarious relationship with. Cohen also said his desire to protect and stay close to Trump came from his faulty ambition.
Journalist Liz Plank tweeted, “Today we got a master class on how corrupt men maintain power through the cooperation and submission of less powerful men who are willing to do anything to get even a small glimpse of that power.”
However, experts aren’t entirely sure what the final impact of Mueller’s investigations will be; the reason for that is the Justice Department has a policy that a sitting President may be charged with crimes.
Cohen’s testimony brings to light that Trump violated campaign finance laws and is vulnerable to prosecution after he leaves office.
Weisselberg, who also participated in the hush money scheme, has been granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation. But Donald Jr. has not and is now exposed to criminal charges.
The Guardian reports that Cohen also said he was aware of other wrongdoings by Trump, but he cannot reveal them because of an ongoing investigation in New York.
Republicans attempted to protect Trump by discrediting Cohen, painting him as “an opportunist who has lied before”.
Republican Jim Jordan spoke to Fox News and said, “Michael Cohen is delusional… I don’t think you can trust anything he says.” Donald Trump Jr. retweeted this video.
Another Republican, Mark Meadows, brought Lynne Patton, an African-American official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who has previously worked with the Trump family, to submit a letter refuting Trump’s alleged racism.
Cohen is currently facing three years in prison because of tax crimes, lying to Congress, and campaign finance violations.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius
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